BREWSTER, N.Y. — If you own a pet, you probably agree: There's just something nice about having it around.
Researchers at Green Chimneys in Brewster have noticed the same thing and use animals for a variety of therapeutic roles. Horses, sheep, dogs, all have been shown to help people with mental or physical disabilities.
Now, through the Sam and Myra Ross Institute at Green Chimneys, they're studying what happens when certified therapy dogs are placed in therapy sessions with groups of children who have autism.
"Intuitively and anecdotally, we can see how contact with animals works," Michael Kaufmann, the institute's director, said. "What we don't have is the data and quantifiable evidence."
The institute is in the midst of a 12-week experiment aimed at capturing that data and determining the ways in which the presence of animals — dogs, in this case — affects children on the autism spectrum.
Erica Rogers, a clinical psychologist and one of the lead researchers, explained that 32 Green Chimneys students ranging in age from 8 to 15 have been divided into four groups of eight. Each week, two groups attend traditional social skills sessions and two groups attend sessions with a pair of therapy dogs.
Rogers and her colleagues are watching to see how behaviors between the groups differ; whether children in the groups with dogs are more relaxed and better able to concentrate; whether the dogs are a distraction or of assistance to the therapists; how the presence of dogs might improve socialization training.
"One thing is clear. They certainly are more excited to go to group therapy," Rogers said of the students.
That alone may prove to be a benefit: If children are eager to attend therapy sessions, they'll likely get more out of those sessions. As Kaufmann put it, animals often serve as a bridge between the therapist and the student.
"The field of animal assisted therapy is about 30 years old," Kaufmann said. "In terms of data, it's in its infancy."
Rogers said her team hopes to have the study finished by the end of the year. Their findings will be published and shared with other organizations working with people on the autism spectrum.