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Service Dogs Heal

July 13, 2020

Chronic conditions and disabilities can be challenging.

People who have a mental/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 might be provided is through the use of service dogs.

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. 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.

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.” 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.”

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