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Service dogs more than just alert systems

by / 0 Comments / 40 View / July 7, 2015

By Patrick Lacombe, The Belton Journal

Service dogs are increasingly becoming an instrument to help soldiers suffering from PTSD and other psychological disorders, but did you know that they can also be used with afflictions such as asthma or psychiatric disorders, autism, and other physical disorders?

Phyllis Abrahms of Killeen uses her service dog Sophie, a 90-pound English mastiff, to alert her to low blood sugar, otherwise called hypoglycemia.

“I can never tell ahead of time when I’m about to pass out due to hypoglycemia, but Sophie can sense it and alerts me so I can deal with it before I start to get dizzy,” said Abrahms.
Abrahms and her husband Phil were shopping at H-E-B in Belton with Sophie tagging alongside. Sophie was sporting her red service dog harness and leash along with a patch sewn onto the harness reading “Service Dog.”

“Everywhere we go, people come up and ask if they can pet Sophie. We always tell them yes, and Sophie likes the attention. She’s just a big cuddly baby,” said Abrahms. “There are some that just walk up and start playing with her without asking. You should never do that. Always ask before touching a service animal.”

Allen and Blascovich, Journal of the AMA (1996), conducted the only published study in which individuals with severe and chronic ambulatory disabilities (who required the use of wheelchairs) were randomly assigned to either an experimental or control group in a paired-sample, controlled clinical trial design.  The study assessed the impact of service dogs for these participants. The results showed improvements in seven dependent measures, namely:

Substantial increases in self-esteem, the extent to which the individuals felt in control of their lives, and measures general psychological well-being.

Dramatic improvements in social interactions and community integration.

Improvements in school attendance rates and/or part-time employment.

Perhaps most surprising and dramatically, all participants in this study showed dramatic decreases in the number of hours of (paid or unpaid) assistance they required.

In a study by Valentine, D.P., Kiddoo, M., & LaFleur in Social Work in Health Care (1993) on the implications of service dog ownership for adults who have mobility, seeing or hearing impairments, participants reported feeling:

More independent (90 percent)

Having higher self-esteem (80 percent)

Being more content (80 percent)

Being more assertive (80 percent)

Another study looking at the impact of service dogs on various self-reported quality of life measures for adults with a wide variety of physical disabilities found significant increases in almost every category.  One of the most relevant findings from the questionnaire had to do with the extent to which participants felt that the service dog improved social life in addition to performing the specific assistance tasks for which they were trained.  The authors reported that “92% of subjects reported that people frequently stopped to talk with them when they went out with their dog, and 75% reported that they had made new friends since they had their dog.”

Also, here are the conclusions from a pre-post study design on the effects of Service Dogs for individuals with physical disabilities by Diana H. Rinala, PhD; Natalie Sachs-Ericsson, PhD; and Karen A. Hart, PhD:

“Consistent with the great majority of other literature on assistance dogs, assessments across a diverse range of areas confirmed the positive impact of the service dogs on the lives of these individuals. Their (the handlers’) positive expectations were commensurate with their actual experience once the dog had been placed with them and they had several months of experience working with the dog. Furthermore, participants rated their satisfaction with their dogs as very high, on average.”

According to this study, even though the assistance dogs were trained to help with difficulties associated with the physical impairment of the handlers, many life areas showed improvement after placement of a service dog, including “number of friends, self-esteem, physical fitness, leisure activities, happiness, assertiveness, job performance, and acceptance of disability.” Also, “their social approachability had improved dramatically after the placement of a service dog.”

“Despite the fact that self-esteem was relatively high among participants before obtaining the service, a standardized quantitative measure of self-esteem indicated significant improvement from before to after placement of the dog.

“Importantly, participants also reported benefits to their family and caregivers. Individuals with disabilities often need both paid and unpaid assistance from caregivers. Unpaid assistance often comes from family members, pacing some degree of burden on the family care-givers. Reduction in the time needed for care-giving can have a positive impact on the overall functioning of the family and positively affect both the individual with a disability as well as other family members.”

Although these studies were all conducted with participants who used assistance dogs to help with physical disabilities, many feel that the same benefits apply to individuals with psychiatric disorders, autism, and seizures.