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Can Pets and Therapy Animals Help Homeless Youth Engage With Needed Services?

Walter, a therapy dog, supports clients at Covenant House Vancouver in British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Covenant House Vancouver.

Companion Animals and Vulnerable Youth: Promoting Engagement Between Youth and Professional Service Providers” (abstract). Nandini Maharaj. Journal of Loss and Trauma, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2016).

What it’s about: Researcher Nandini Maharaj wanted to know whether pets help runaway and homeless young people seek and remain connected to mental health, medical, and social services. To find out, she reviewed available literature on vulnerable youth and their experiences with these "companion animals." This article also presents a case study of an Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) program provided by youth services organization Covenant House in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Why read it: Prior research shows that pets can help alleviate loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and depression. Maharaj cites research showing that runaway and homeless youth are vulnerable to these maladies, yet they are less likely to take advantage of services available to them than their housed peers. Prior research suggests that the presence and/or accommodation of companion animals at service sites might make such sites more welcoming to young people, and help providers and youth to build collaborative relationships.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Maharaj learned the following from her research:

Vulnerable youth travel with pets. Participants in studies of youth service utilization describe helpful service providers as pet-friendly, among other traits. Young people are often likely to avoid getting help because of prior negative experiences with providers whom they viewed as unhelpful, including turning away animals. Indeed, young people may delay or refuse assistance if their pets are not allowed into shelters with them, Maharaj found.

[Read about pros and cons of pet ownership for homeless youth.]

Maharaj suggests that while further research is needed, AAT may be a helpful addition to programs serving vulnerable youth. She also suggests that therapists and other youth-serving practitioners validate the relationships between clients and companion animals and develop strategies that help these clients and recognize the animals’ supportive role.

Additional references: Learn more about Learn more about youth engagement and pets/companion animals in our digital library.

Discover how at-risk youth and shelter pets can help each other in this collaborative program.

Read a story about canine-assisted therapy as trauma-informed care.

In the image above, Walter, a therapy dog, supports clients at Covenant House Vancouver in British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Covenant House Vancouver.

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