Can Dogs Create Connections for People in Supported Housing?

The benefits of a dog-walking program for people with intellectual disabilities.

Posted Dec 08, 2018

Dogs can be an ice-breaker in social interactions. Earlier research in four cities has shown that pets can build community and are a common way to get to know other people. Can they do the same for people with intellectual disabilities?

Source: dawnie206/Pixabay

A recent study by Dr. Emma Bould (La Trobe University) et al, published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, set out to investigate the effects of a dog-walking program for people with intellectual disabilities. The results of this exploratory research show beneficial effects from the presence of a dog.

The rationale for the study is that people with intellectual disabilities who live in supported housing often have limited social interactions except with other residents, the staff, and their family. The scientists wondered if a regular outing with a dog would lead to increased friendly encounters with other people.

Sixteen people with intellectual disabilities took part in the study, divided into two groups of matched pairs. Each pair was equivalent on levels of disability and whether or not they had Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or social impairment.

Both groups had 14 one-hour outings into the community with a handler to do something they would enjoy, such as a visit to a café, shopping, or a walk in the park. But one group had a dog, while the other group didn’t.

After all 14 sessions, the people who had not had a dog were then given 5 one-hour sessions with a dog present too. (If this were a true cross-over design, the people who originally had a dog would have also had outings without, but the scientists understandably did not want to take the dog away from them).

The two dog handlers who took part in the study had experience of dog-walking programs with a non-profit organization and attended a special one-day training prior to the start of the study.

The results showed that when a dog was present, there were significantly more encounters with other people – 2.6 interactions per outing compared to 1.2 for those with no dog.

And the presence of a dog seemed to change the kind of encounter. Without a dog, the people with intellectual disabilities were sometimes ignored or treated in a way that was disrespectful; this did not happen to the people in the group with a dog.

As well, when they were visiting the same place each week, those in the dog group were recognized sooner than those without a dog.

Positive interactions often centered around comments on the dog or requests to pat the dog.

Although some participants in the study are nonverbal and could not be asked for their opinion, one was reported as saying,

“People are friendlier when you have a dog. I have seen people look and smile.”

The findings on differences between groups are supported by similar changes when the no-dog group switched to taking a dog on outings.

The researchers say,

“When participants went out with a dog, they had significantly more encounters of a different and more convivial nature compared with going out without a dog. The presence of a dog appeared to offer protection against negative factors, and to facilitate fleeting and convivial encounters, as well as giving participants greater confidence to engage in social exchanges, and be more quickly recognised in community places.”

As this was an exploratory study, more research is needed. The handlers, who reported on the frequency and nature of interactions, were not blind to the study design as they could, of course, see the presence or absence of a dog. Future research could take more objective measures and have a larger sample size.

The results suggest a dog walking program could be very beneficial for people with intellectual disabilities because it increases the friendly interactions they have with other people. Such programs could be a good way to build social inclusion.

If you think about your own experiences with dogs, have they helped you to make friends?


Bould, E., Bigby, C., Bennett, P. C., & Howell, T. J. (2018). ‘More people talk to you when you have a dog’–dogs as catalysts for social inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 62(10), 833-841.