Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Social Work

Major Professor

William Nugent

Committee Members

Elizabeth Strand, Rebecca Bolen, John New, Cindy Davis


Humans and animals interaction is showing promise as a way to provide complementary and alternative medicine for humans. Children have an affinity for animals that could be useful therapeutically. Emotional stress and trauma impacts the neurobiology of children, who are vulnerable given the developmental plasticity of the brain. Some research suggests that neuropeptides and neuromodulators in both humans and the animals are mutually altered through human animal interaction, resulting in the attenuation of stressful responses in both (Yorke, in press; McCabe & Albano, 2004; Uvnas-Moberg, 2009). Human or animal touch, proximity and mind body interaction has been found to contribute to trauma recovery (Brooks, 2006; Perry, 2006; Van der Kolk, 2003; Yorke, Adams & Coady, 2008). Trauma results in the release of the peptide glucocortisoid, or cortisol leading to an ongoing over-arousal of the anatomic nervous system (ANS). Kindling (sensitivity) of the brain, a result of stress, ironically makes the brain more receptive to attunement and enriched environments (Francis & Meaney, 1999; Kramer, 1993; Putnam, 2005). Attunement with others as well as enriched environments is prophylactic, contributing to resilience and normal brain development (Caldji, Diorio & Meaney, 2000; Carter, 1998; Lewis & Todd, 2007; Nelson, 2000; Shore, 2003).

The empirical evidence indicates that companion animals impact humans in helpful ways (Friedmann, Katcher, Thomas, Lynch & Messent, 1983; Shiloh, S., Sorek, G., & Terkel, J., 2003; Virues-Ortega, & Bruela-Casal, 2006; Wilson, 1991; Uvnas-Moberg, 2009). Equine-human interaction in particular has demonstrated contradictory results (Bass, Duchowny & Llabre, 2009; Davis, 2009; Schultz, Remick-Barlow & Robbins, 2007). Equine-human interaction can be viewed as a kind of ‘mind body experience’ that incorporates the characteristics of affiliation and attunement into a child’s environment (Finger & Arnold, 2002). A pilot study, multiple base line, single case design of four traumatized children, eight to ten years old and four therapeutic riding horses explores the neurobiological interaction between the children and horses. It hypothesizes that there will be physiological resonance and symmetry in the responses. Some trends suggest the need for further research.

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