Expectations and Experiences:  Where do Service Dogs do the Most Good?

Service dogs2

At the end of one year and the beginning of the next, it seems like a good time to reflect on all the good service dogs do for their handlers. We all believe that the benefits of having a service animal cover a broad spectrum. But what are the specifics? What do people say when asked to describe their actual experiences as handlers? And for people on the waiting list for a service dog, what benefits – and challenges – do they anticipate?

A research group at Purdue University set about to answer these questions. Their survey work* sheds light on the elements service dog handlers found most beneficial and, in some cases, most challenging.

PHYSICAL BENEFITS

Physical assistance is what mobility dogs are all about. Some 70 percent of the current handlers responding to the Purdue survey said their service dog provides important medical and physical assistance. The most frequently mentioned aspects of physical aid included:

  • Help with balance and motion.
  • Help with tasks associated with movement or strength, such as opening doors and turning on lights.

Here’s a typical comment: “(My service dog) could help me pick up my dropped pencil, book, toy, utensils, etc. so I wouldn’t be embarrassed to ask for help.” Other types of assistance mentioned included providing steady support for balance: (“The dog is) a four-legged cane for balance.”

PSYCHOSOCIAL BENEFITS

Service Dogs Offer Priceless Psychosocial Benefits

As much as we all love our pooches and value their companionship, respondents to the Purdue survey nevertheless gave surprisingly high scores to the emotional and social benefits they derive from their service dogs.

  • Almost every current handler in the survey (98 percent) said they had received major satisfaction from their dog-human relationship. Said one respondent, “It’s an unnatural feeling when your safety sidekick isn’t attached to your hip. I can’t imagine any part of my life without her.”
  • Another said: “My service dog is the gift of fur, my companion, my confidant … but most of all, he is the one who is always there.” Terms like “friendship,” “bond” and “reciprocated love” came up often in the survey comments.

Handlers also referenced the emotional benefits they gain from their canine-person connection. Some of these come from:

  • Increased confidence, as one respondent said: “Having a disability makes you feel vulnerable. Your confidence is gone. Service dogs give you the comfort you need.”
  • Others noted their dogs improved their quality of life: “I would not have the freedom I have if I did not have my service dog to watch over me.”

DRAWBACKS

Mobility dogs are, of course, creatures that require care – feeding, grooming, exercise, and veterinary visits. One respondent commented on an issue familiar to all of us: “It’s sometimes hard to get the energy to take my service dog on a walk.”

Still, 30 percent of current handlers said their animals brought no drawbacks. Many current handlers discounted the costs and efforts and considered them part of the arrangement, rather than as explicit negatives. One respondent’s comment captured this idea: “All of the drawbacks are minor compared to the advantages – it is totally worth it.”

EXPECTATIONS OF PEOPLE ON THE WAITING LIST FOR A SERVICE DOG

Those on the waiting list for a service dog had their own perspectives on what their experience would be like. Some key points:

Service Dog Handlers Benefit from the Human-Dog Relationship

Current and prospective handlers didn’t differ much in their expectations of physical benefits. However, people who currently have a service dog said they actually derive far more social and emotional advantages than prospective handlers said they anticipated. Most significantly, 80 percent of people who have a service dog said they benefit from the human-animal relationship; only 48 percent of those on the wait list said they thought this would be important in their experience. Current handlers referred to the burdens of care as an issue more often than did those waiting for a service dog, though these concerns were far from dominant.

If anything, the Purdue study underscores the richness and complexity of the bond between dogs and their handlers. Yes, dogs need walking, feeding, and vet care; and yes, they (even the best trained) sometimes misbehave.

But overall, the study suggests that dogs provide an amazing array of physical and emotional benefits. They go well beyond being our best friends – for those with mobility dogs, they are indispensable companions.

All Images Courtesy of MobilityDogs.

* Kerri E. Rodriguez, Jessica Bibbo, Savannah Verdon, and Marguerite E. O’Haire, “Mobility and medical service dogs: a qualitative analysis of expectations and experiences,” Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology. 2020 Jul; 15(5): 499–509. Published online 2019 Mar 25. doi: 10.1080/17483107.2019.1587015

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