Objective: To assess the value of service dogs for people with ambulatory disabilities.
Design: Randomized, controlled clinical trial.
Setting: Environments of study participants.
Participants: Forty-eight individuals with severe and chronic ambulatory disabilities requiring use of wheelchairs who were recruited from advocacy and support groups for persons with muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury. Participants were matched on age, sex, marital status, race, and the nature and severity of the disability in order to create 24 pairs. Within each pair, participants were randomly assigned to either the experimental group or a wait-list control group.
Intervention: Experimental group members received trained service dogs 1 month after the study began, and subjects in the wait-list control group received dogs in month 13 of the study.
Main outcome measures: Dependent variables evaluated were self-reported assessments of psychological well-being, internal locus of control, community integration, school attendance, part-time work status, self-esteem, marital status, living arrangements, and number of biweekly paid and unpaid assistance hours. Data collection occurred every 6 months over a 2-year period, resulting in five data collection points for all subjects.
Results: Significant positive changes in all but two dependent measures were associated with the presence of a service dog both between and within groups (P<.001). Psychologically, all participants showed substantial improvements in self-esteem, internal locus of control, and psychological well-being within 6 months after receiving their service dog. Socially, all participants showed similar improvements in community integration. Demographically, all participants showed increases in school attendance and/or part-time employment. Economically, all participants showed dramatic decreases in the number of both paid and unpaid assistance hours.
Conclusions: Trained service dogs can be highly beneficial and potentially cost-effective components of independent living for people with physical disabilities.