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SHELBY E. MCDONALD, PHD

Founder & Director, CFAR GROUP, LLC

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A LITTLE ABOUT ME

Multidisciplinary Researcher

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MY RESEARCH

Ongoing and Recent Projects

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Clarifying relations between human-animal interaction (HAI)and child adjustment in the context of adverse childhood experiences is critical for understanding how animals in the home impact children’s development. HAI may confer both protective effects and pose additional risks to children’s development and wellbeing. It is well documented that exposure to animal maltreatment (AM) is prevalent and frequently co-occurs with other forms of adversity. Although prior research links childhood AM exposure with short- and long-term maladjustment, the majority of prior research has relied on an overly simplistic dichotomous index that does not address the complexity of AM exposure and/or fails to account for co-occurring adverse experiences. The lack of a reliable and valid instrument has hindered efforts to delineate how AM exposure and positive aspects of HAI (e.g., bonds with pets) interact and influence children’s development in the context of co-occurring adversities. This project has two goals designed to address these limitations and advance pediatric research: 1) to develop the Youth Checklist of Animal-Related Experiences (CARE-Y), a new measure of exposure to AM that is valid and reliable for use with children and adolescents, and 2) to use the CARE-Y to collect pilot data to lay the groundwork for a longitudinal R01 that will more rigorously test risk and protective effects of HAI on relations between childhood adversity and child health and development. We will use scientifically rigorous approaches to establish an ecologically relevant measure grounded in the experiences of children that adequately captures the complexity of this construct in a diverse sample. Our study will advance pediatric public health knowledge by providing a better understanding of the potential risk and protective effects of HAI on children’s adjustment. Further, the resulting instrument could prove to be a useful tool to identify youth at risk for other forms of childhood adversity.

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COMPANION ANIMALS IN THE CONTEXT OF LGBTQ+ YOUTH WELLBEING

LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minority identities) youth and emerging adults are a diverse group of young people facing stigma, victimization, and discrimination at levels that impact their wellbeing. There is growing evidence that social support is a crucial protective factor that attenuates the impact of LGBTQ-specific stressors (i.e., victimization, discrimination) on mental health; however, to date, studies examining social support among LGBTQ+ youth and emerging adults have been limited to exploring the impact of relationships with other humans. We are collecting data from youth ages 12-21 years to understand whether and how pet ownership relates to wellbeing  in LGBTQ+ young people (ages 12-21 years), and whether human-animal interaction (HAI) operates as a protective factor in this population.

This study involves collaboration with four organizations serving LGBTQ+ youth in Virginia: Side by SideNationz FoundationPlanned Parenthood Virginia League, and Health Brigade

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THE INFLUENCE OF HUMAN-ANIMAL INTERACTION ON SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING

 The purpose of this study is to understand how interactions with dogs may influence the process of social and emotional learning. Programs that enhance social and emotional learning have been associated with better academic performance, more positive attitudes towards learning, and improved mental, emotional, and behavioral health in children. However, most programs to enhance social and emotional learning in children are limited to school environments. It is possible that dogs may improve social and emotional learning in children, because animals cannot verbally communicate and, therefore, children must interpret what their pet thinks, feels, and wants. Further, interacting with dogs may create opportunities for parents to demonstrate how to identify mental and emotional states, and for children to practice this in an enjoyable, appealing way. The purpose of this study is to evaluate how interacting with a pet dog influences the use of mental state language, a key process of social and emotional learning. The data for this study was collected at Yale University and is now being coded and analyzed by the CFAR group. This study is not currently recruiting participants. 

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RELATIONSHIPS WITH PETS DURING THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

This study seeks to examine the effects of relationships with pets on human health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, often create unprecedented conditions that may lead to increased stress and adversity due to financial, social, personal and health uncertainty (e.g., job insecurity, social distancing/isolation, family conflict). Due to the recommendations for social distancing, individuals may lack the social support typically provided by other individuals during times of adversity. Pets may provide social support and could buffer the deleterious effects of stress and isolation, from the COVID-19 pandemic, on mental health; however, in some cases pets may also contribute to stress and, particularly in resource-constrained environments, can become barriers to accessing housing or healthcare. This data for this study was collected in April-July of 2020.

Man's Best friend

INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE & ANIMAL CRUELTY

The potentially deleterious effects of children’s exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) have been well documented and include both externalizing and internalizing problems as well as compromised socioemotional functioning.  Recent research suggests that concomitant exposure to animal abuse may occur in families with pets and who have experienced IPV.  Our research compares the mental health correlates of  a) exposure to IPV coupled with exposure to animal abuse with  b) exposure to IPV absent exposure to animal abuse. Drawing from social learning, attachment, and empathy development theories, we hypothesize that concomitant exposure to animal abuse may provide children an additional model of antisocial behavior, increase their emotional distress if the animal abuse to which they have been exposed involves pets to which children are emotionally attached, and may affect personal distress and empathy.  Greater focus on exposure to IPV and animal abuse may enhance our understanding of the processes implicated in the effects of exposure to violence generally and illustrate how addressing human-animal relationships in childhood could inform therapeutic interventions.

 
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