Service dogs give handlers an emotional boost

A service dog trained by Canine Assistants gets a scratch from its handler. Researchers recruited study participants from Canine Assistants. (Credit: David Scott/ Canine Assistants)

Service dogs can have measurable positive effects on the health and well-being of people with physical disabilities, a new study shows.

“We found that compared to individuals on the wait list, those who had a service dog had significantly better psychosocial health including better emotional, social, and work/school functioning,” says Maggie O’Haire from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University.

“However, we found that having a service dog was surprisingly not related to other indicators of well-being such as anger, sleep quality, or social companionship. 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—are often placed with individuals who have a variety of different conditions or disabilities, such as seizures disorders, quadri- or paraplegia, or cerebral palsy.

Service dogs can help with mobility—including with basic tasks such as opening and closing doors—or trainers can teach them to recognize and respond to the onset of a medical emergency such as a seizure.

For the study, which appears in Disability and Rehabilitation, researchers recruited 154 individuals from the databases of Canine Assistants, a national service dog provider, 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.

The findings show how service dogs may help their handler in ways that extend beyond what they are directly trained to do, the researchers say.

“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,” says coauthor Kerri Rodriguez.

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  well-being, self-esteem, or sleep quality both before and after someone 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 studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time.

Elanco funded the work.

Source: Purdue University