Factors Influencing Perception of Animals Commonly Used in Animal-Assisted Therapy

Research Poster
Nicole Lorig
Kimberly Cole
Department of Animal Sciences

Selection procedures for animals participating in animal-assisted therapy programs often rely on temperament and behavioral characteristics. Research has shown that our perception of a person’s physical appearance may influence our behavior and interactions with that person, and these interactions may even influence psychotherapeutic goals. It is our hypothesis that human perception of an animal’s physical appearance may yield similar results.  The objective of this study was to investigate whether perception of animals can be influenced by their coat color or facial expression as well as our previous experience with that animal species.  Two groups of participants (undergraduate students, n=128; general public, n=270) completed an electronic survey in which they selected one of three images of horses and dogs of varying coat color but similar facial expressions. They then selected one of three images of animals with the same coat color but varying facial expressions. Participants were also asked to categorize their experience level (beginner, intermediate, advanced) with each species. Both populations showed preference for animals displaying a facial expression with ears forward and eyes wide (p<0.001). The broad population demonstrated a preference for the darkest coat color among dogs (p=0.041). Experience level influenced facial expression preference for both species among both populations (p<0.036). Results indicate that experience may influence preference for coat color, but that facial expression preference is similar across species. These findings suggest that animals’ physical characteristics may influence human perceptions and attitudes about the animal and should be taken into consideration when selecting therapy animal participants.