February 14, 2019

Service dogs benefit the well-being of their handlers, research shows

O'Haire service A service dog trained by Canine Assistants gets a scratch from its handler. A recent study from Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine shows that service dogs can have measurable positive effects on the health and wellbeing of individuals with physical disabilities. The participants from the study were recruited from Canine Assistants. (David Scott, Canine Assistants)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Low self-confidence. Social isolation. Longing for independence.

Service dogs have been long thought to help individuals with physical disabilities find some relief from these feelings. The waiting lists for these dogs continue to grow, but the evidence to support their effectiveness has been missing – until now.

A recent study, led by the Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, shows how service dogs can have measurable positive effects on the health and wellbeing of individuals with physical disabilities. The study, which was published in Disability and Rehabilitation and funded by Elanco, was led by Kerri Rodriguez and Maggie O’Haire from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond.

Rodriguez and O’Haire’s focus during this study was to discover just how much these dogs affected the overall well-being of their handlers. A major finding of the study was how service dogs affect the psychosocial health of their handlers, which is an individual’s state of mental, emotional, and social wellbeing.

“We found that compared to individuals on the waitlist, those who had a service dog had significantly better psychosocial health including better emotional, social, and work/school functioning. However, we found that having a service dog was surprisingly not related to other indicators of wellbeing such as anger, sleep quality, or social companionship,” O’Haire said. “These findings help shed light on the fact that having a service dog may impact some areas of life more than others.”

Service dogs – more specifically, mobility and medical alert service dogs – can be placed with individuals with a variety of different conditions or disabilities, such as seizures disorders, quadri- or paraplegia, or cerebral palsy. Service dogs can benefit them through helping with mobility – including helping with basic tasks such as opening and closing doors – or they can be trained to recognize and respond to the onset of a medical emergency such as a seizure.

The study recruited 154 individuals from the databases of national service dog provider Canine Assistants to participate in a survey. A total of 97 individuals had a service dog from Canine Assistants while 57 were on a waiting list to receive one.

Rodriguez and O’Haire said the findings help shed light on how service dogs may impact their handler in ways that extend beyond what they are directly trained for.

“Our findings are important because they empirically validate the numerous anecdotal reports from individuals with service dogs that say that these dogs really have an impact on their life,” Rodriguez said.

But if service dogs provide these sorts of benefits, what about dogs in general?

“We are still unsure how having a service dog and a pet dog may differ,” Rodriguez says. “Although these service dogs are extensively trained to provide medical or physical assistance, we know that their companionship and unconditional love are important factors in the relationship.”

Rodriguez also says future research will benefit from measuring wellbeing, self-esteem or sleep quality both before and after an individual receives a service dog to measure change over time.

O’Haire has also been leading research regarding how psychiatric service dogs may help veterans with PTSD. So far, her research has revealed how service dogs might offer both psychosocial and physiological benefits to veterans. O’Haire’s research group is currently conducting a clinical trial that is studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time.   

Writer: Abbey Nickel, 765-496-1325, nickela@purdue.edu 

Source: Maggie O’Haire, 765-494-7472, mohaire@purdue.edu 

Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in a copy of the Disability and Rehabilitation article can contact Abbey Nickel, Purdue News Service, 765-496-1325, nickela@purdue.edu 


ABSTRACT

The effects of service dogs on psychosocial health and wellbeing for individuals with physical disabilities or chronic conditions

Kerri E. Rodriguez, Jessica Bibbo and Marguerite E. O’Haire

Purpose: To evaluate the effects of service dogs on psychosocial health and indicators of wellbeing among individuals with physical disabilities or chronic conditions.

Materials and methods: A total of 154 individuals participated in a cross-sectional survey including 97 placed with a mobility or medical service dog and 57 on the waitlist to receive one. Hierarchical regression evaluated the effect of having a service dog on standardized measures of psychosocial health (Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory) as well as anger, companionship, and sleep disturbance (Patient Reported Outcome Measurement Information System). Among those with a service dog, the Monash Dog–Owner Relationship Scale quantified the human–animal bond.

Results: Results indicated that compared to those on the waitlist, individuals with a service dog exhibited significantly better psychosocial health including higher social, emotional, and work/school functioning. There was no significant effect of having a service dog on anger, companionship, or sleep disturbance. Among those with a service dog, emotional closeness, dog–owner interaction, and amount of time since the service dog was placed were weak correlates of outcomes.

Conclusions: Findings suggest that service dogs may have measurable effects on specific aspects of psychosocial health for individuals with physical disabilities or chronic conditions.

Implications for rehabilitation

  • Health care providers should recognize that in addition to the functional benefits service dogs are trained to provide, they can also provide their handlers with psychosocial benefits from their assistance and companionship.
  • Results indicate that having a service dog was related to better emotional functioning, social functioning, and work/school functioning. Areas with no significant relationship with having a service dog included social companionship, sleep, and anger.
  • Although findings are from a large and representative sample of mobility and medical service dogs, there may be individual differences in how service dogs affect the psychosocial health of their handlers.

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