Service Dogs May Improve Your Mental Health
Service dogs might be helpful in more ways than previously assumed.
Posted Jul 13, 2020
Chronic conditions and disabilities can be challenging.
People who have a mental or physical disability or a chronic condition that results in functional impairment, or limitations to their daily activities and social participation, may need assistance with a variety of daily tasks.
One way such assistance that might be provided is through the use of service dogs.
Some research suggests that beyond providing concrete assistance (e.g., pulling the wheelchair, helping lead the blind in busy streets), service dogs also help improve psychological and social health (in those with PTSD, autism, etc).
In support of this view, in an article published in the May issue of Disability and Rehabilitation, researchers from Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine present evidence that service dogs ameliorate several aspects of health and well-being in people with chronic conditions or physical disabilities.1
Service dogs for individuals with physical disabilities or chronic conditions
Service dogs used in the current investigation were purebred or crosses between Standard Poodles, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. These dogs functioned as either mobility assistance dogs, seizure response dogs, or diabetic alert dogs:
Mobility service dogs assist people with chronic conditions and physical disabilities by performing behaviors such as opening/closing the door, turning on the light, and retrieving out-of-reach or dropped items.
Seizure response service dogs help individuals with epilepsy and seizure conditions. When a seizure occurs, these dogs stay with the individual and provide comfort—or, in case of an emergency, call for help.
Diabetic alert dogs are trained to help those with type 1 diabetes. These dogs can alert their handlers to dangerous changes in the person’s blood sugar, obtain medications for them, and call for help.
Methods of the study of service dogs on their handlers’ mental health
For the present study, participants were recruited from the database of a national provider of service dogs. The main inclusion criteria included being accepted by the program (i.e., no fear of dogs, no dog allergies, and no family member with a criminal history of animal abuse or other violent crime), and having received service dogs or being on the wait-list.
Participants were required to complete a survey (46 percent response rate). The final sample consisted of 154 individuals (53 percent males; average age of 26 years, with a range of 4 to 72 years), of whom 97 had received a service dog and 57 were on the wait-list to get one. Participants in the service dog group were selected so that they matched (by diagnosis and approximate age) those in the wait-list group.
Wait-list participants did not differ from ones in the service dog group by sex, diagnosis, or progressiveness of condition. However, those on the wait-list were younger than ones in the service dog group (average age of 23 vs 28 years) and were more likely to be living with a pet dog.
Diagnoses in the sample were, in order of frequency:
- Neuromuscular disorders (e.g., paraplegia, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy)
- Seizure disorders (e.g., Koolen-de Vries syndrome, epilepsy)
- Musculoskeletal disorders (e.g., brittle bone disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Developmental/intellectual disorders (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome, Down syndrome).
Measures included activities of daily living (e.g., ability to perform grooming, dressing, showering); past month psychosocial health (i.e. emotional, social, work/school functioning); and past week anger/irritability, social support, and sleep quality.
Human-animal bonding was assessed with a measure that included items related to human-animal interactions (e.g., hugging or playing games) and emotional closeness (e.g., “My dog gives me a reason to get up in the morning”).
Results and conclusion on the use of service dogs
The results of the analysis did not show a statistical association between having a service dog and improvement of anger, social companionship, or sleep quality. However, compared to those on the wait-list, people with a service dog had better psychosocial health. Even after statistically controlling for demographics, pet dog ownership, and disability variables, a significant association remained between owning a service dog and “higher overall psychosocial health including higher emotional, social, and work/school functioning.”1
The biggest impact of a service dog in the lives of people with physical disabilities and chronic conditions was in school and/or work—where it improved engagement, interactions, and overall functioning.
These benefits are important because physical disabilities and other conditions cause impairment and dysfunction that affect people’s quality of life in multiple ways. These conditions often limit individuals’ lives and restrict their opportunities, especially in social and work domains. The present study suggests service dogs might help in all these domains. As the authors note, “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.”1
1. Rodriguez, K. E., Bibbo, J., & O’Haire, M. E. (2020). The effects of service dogs on psychosocial health and wellbeing for individuals with physical disabilities or chronic conditions. Disability and Rehabilitation, 42(10), 1350-1358.