CPB Research Team Measures Psychological Support Provided by Service Dogs

February 10, 2017

Dr. Maggie O'Haire, PVM Assistant Professor of Human-Animal Interaction (File Photo)
Dr. Maggie O’Haire, PVM Assistant Professor of Human-Animal Interaction (File Photo)


The physical benefits service dogs provide in assisting people with disabilities are well known, but preliminary findings from a new study conducted by Purdue Veterinary Medicine Assistant Professor of Human-Animal Interaction Maggie O'Haire and her research team show that service dogs also contribute significantly to emotional and psychosocial wellbeing. The preliminary results were shared Tuesday, February 7, during a presentation at the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) Conference in Orlando, Fla.

The study compared service dog recipients and their family members to people and their families who are on a waiting list for service dogs. "Even though the functional tasks service dogs perform to help with physical disabilities are well recognized, the emotional and psychosocial effects of service dogs are largely unknown," said Dr. O'Haire, a member of the Department of Comparative Pathobiology faculty and leader of the Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research (OHAIRE). Dr. O'Haire also is a member of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond. She was assisted on the project by CPB graduate student Kerri Rodriguez and postdoctoral research fellow Jess Bibbo.

This new research project on the human-animal bond is part of a four-year, primary research study of the emotional and health impacts that service dogs have on their recipients and family members. The goal of the three-part study is to produce groundbreaking, evidence-based research documenting the "pet effect," - or impact of the human-animal bond on mental health and wellbeing. "Service dog recipients and their family members represent an ideal population with whom to conduct human-animal bond studies," Dr. O'Haire said.

The researchers worked with a nonprofit organization called Canine Assistants, which is dedicated to education and placement of service dogs with children and adults who have physical disabilities or other special needs. Participants were invited to complete a brief, online or telephone survey that asked them to give their consent for the research team to access their initial application materials and any other information previously provided to Canine Assistants. The survey also included a questionnaire about emotional and psychosocial functioning. If a potential or current service dog recipient was a minor or had limited verbal skills, a family member completed a proxy survey on their behalf. Additionally, the study evaluated the emotional and psychosocial benefits of the human-animal bond for family members (parents, caregivers and spouses) of service dog recipients.

"Families often face unique difficulties because of an individual family member's health," Dr. O'Haire said. "Our preliminary results show that, overall, family members with a service dog in the home exhibit better social and emotional functioning as well as decreased worry as a result of the recipient's health, compared to family members on the waitlist. Family members with a service dog also exhibited better management of daily family activities compared to those on the service dog waitlist."

Dr. O'Haire also said these preliminary findings are not surprising, but they are very significant. "There is a wealth of positive anecdotal information, but comparatively few data-driven scientific measures of how dogs affect their human companions' sense of well-being." The study is funded by Elanco Animal Health, which also supports Canine Assistants. "Innovative research is key to protecting both human and animal health," said Dr. Heidi Hulon, consulting veterinarian for Elanco. "Elanco understands the powerful role healthy animals play in making lives better and this research has the potential to empower veterinarians and all those concerned with animal health to enrich the lives of people worldwide by supporting programs that promote the human-animal bond."

Dr. O'Haire said her team's long-term research goal is to provide a scientific assessment of the effects of the human-animal bond on mental health and wellbeing outcomes. "By evaluating both the recipient and a family member, these results may be applicable to a broad range of pet owners," she said. Additional research is underway to fully analyze the data and confirm the initial results.

Writer: Kevin Doerr, pvmnews@purdue.edu

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