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The successful therapy dog: an insight through a Delphi consultation survey among Italian experts

Alina Simona Rusu

August 20, 2021

A recent study investigating the perceptions of the optimal features of therapy dogs by AAI practitioners in Italy is available in a pre-proof format in Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

The study aims to build consensus about features that make a therapy dog successful in AAI settings among Italian professionals that work in the AAI field. A three-round Delphi process was set up to get closer to this goal. Delphi is a multistage interactive process, which consists of a series of questionnaires sent out to a group of experts (called panel) in a number of rounds. The first round is used to obtain input on the research question; the subsequent ones include controlled feedback and the questionnaires used in them are developed based on results from the previous rounds. All Delphi exercises were conducted using online questionnaires distributed to professionals. As a first step, respondents were asked to answer an open- ended question, asking what defining features a therapy dog should have to be eligible in most dog-assisted intervention programs, while in subsequent rounds participants rated to what extent characteristics resulting from round 1 are desirable/undesirable for a therapy dog.

Thirty-three professionals (AAI practitioners) in Italy responded to all rounds. The Delphi study allowed us to identify 55 defining features of a therapy dog. Among them, 16 features resulted “very desirable” with expert consensus and they all relate to dog resilience, dog emotional balance, dog willingness to collaborate with both handler and users/patient and dog communication skills. Moreover, it was noticed that respondents often assign human qualities onto the animal showing anthropomorphism attitude. The authors concluded that a selection of therapy dog should not consider only exclusion criteria and role-playing, but their communication skills, willingness to engage, resilience and emotional balance should also be assessed. The outcomes of this study support the idea that management of stressful situations through functional coping strategies and good emotional control makes the dog a reliable partner for the handler in the AAI settings.

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