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Dogs for the disabled – a mutually beneficial human-animal interaction?

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

Exploiting the human-animal interaction; dogs for the disabled.

Under the broad spectrum of the human-animal interaction, lies the idea of animal assisted interventions. These interventions can be recreational through to therapeutic (Kruger and Serpell, 2010) and research into these areas is growing (Anthrozoology, 2012). A wide variety of organisations support the use of animals for health benefits, from disability assistance (Dogs for the disabled, 2012) to the use of therapy animals (Delta Society, 2012).

Organisations Exploiting the H.A.I.

The Dogs for the Disabled Organisation (DftD)

There are a large number of organisations that use human-animal interactions to benefit humans using A.A.I.s (animal assisted interventions). One particular charitable organisation provide physically disabled people and families with autistic children with assistance dogs. Dogsforthediabled.org (2012) state that their providing of dogs gives normally dependant people freedom and motivation.

The website goes on to state:

”… dogs really do bring many positive benefits to our lives… a reason to go out, giving a new found confidence that opens doors to fresh opportunities including friendships, hobbies, education and even careers… The partnerships we create between people with disabilities and dogs are life-changing.” The main aims of the organisation are to allow those with physical handicaps become more independent and for families with autistic children to become less socially isolated (Dogs for the Disabled, 2012). The website, dogsforthedisabled.org (2012), provides ‘success stories’ with 12 first-person accounts of how the provided dogs have made a positive impact on someone or some family’s lives.

Handicap Assistance Dogs

As mentioned, DftD provide disabled people with physical handicaps assistance dogs to help them with everyday tasks. Each dog is specially trained to meet their disabled owner’s specific needs. The website, dogsforthedisabled.org, (2012), have several videos which show the types of activities these dogs can do for their disabled owners. These include: emptying the washing machine, removing clothing i.e. socks and jackets, opening and closing doors, fetching items i.e. remote controls and mobile phones, pushing buttons, switching lights on, putting things in the bin and opening and closing drawers.

Autism support dogs for families with Autistic children

The services for families with autistic children are providing a specially trained dog to the family and working with the children and families to help them use their dogs for maximum benefit. Dogsforthediasbled.org, (2012), lists the benefits of autism support dogs as providing a consistent relationship, a calming influence, a focus point in stressful situations and ensuring structure and routine with tasks such as walking and training. Some of the success stories go on to say how the dog provides a confidence boost while around other people and in social situations as well as motivation to go to and work harder at school.

Welfare and Related Issues

Ethical Issues with exploiting dogs

There is a strong argument for exploiting animals for the benefit of humans, but welfare considerations need to be taken into account. The dogs for the disabled organisation have taken the welfare of dogs into consideration on their research website, paws.dogsforthedisabled.org (2012). One study looked at eight dogs in a family setting with an autistic child. The following potential welfare issues were recorded:

  1. Insufficient rest time

  2. Too few chances to urinate/ defecate

  3. Wearing their identification jacket for a long period of time

  4. Unintentional mistreatment by children with and autistic disorder

  5. In-consistent routines

  6. Lack of affection or rewarding

  7. Lack of opportunities for play or recreational walks

  8. Exhaustion; especially when kept awake during the night

The study highlighted the fact the parents needed to be made aware of the issues, and helped then recognise the dogs physical and social needs. By providing the dog with a suitable home, they will perform better as service dogs (Burrows, Adams and Millman, 2008).

To further protect service dog’s welfare, a study done in 2010 looked at effective ways of preventing harm done my autistic children. A case study of a six-year-old boy with autism had been mishandling his support dog which had caused the dog to become distressed and nip the boy. A few positive re-enforcement techniques was used to reward the child for touching the dog appropriately. The techniques worked, and showed that by working with simple behavioural interventions the child can learn to behave appropriately towards their designated dog (Bergstrom, Tarbox and Gutshall, 2010).

Using social support dogs with autistic children can start a foundation for them to learn vital social skills and provide them with confidence and motivation, improving overall family life. Although it is not without concerns, studies have shown that there are ways to improve the quality of life of children diagnosed with autistic disorders, while also caring for the dog’s health and wellbeing.


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