Site Contents The Library Photos/Videos Obedience Competition Assistance Dogs Nose Related Dog Work Protection Training Other Dog Work Misc. Info/Resources E-mail Lists, Etc. Search this Site Site Index

Dr. Ps Dog Training

The Psychosocial Impact of
Assistance Dogs on Their Owners:
A Literature Review

by Jennifer Davis (Spring, 1998)
Copyright © 1998
Note that this paper partially fulfilled the requirements
for an independent study with
Dr. M. Plonsky at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point

A participant in a study by Eddy, Hart and Boltz (1988) was quoted as stating the following. "To go shopping, see a parade, or be a part of a crowded scene, I feel I need to have the energy to manage the social risk. I can use those times as an opportunity to teach, to impress, and to be gregarious if I have the right energy. Or I can look upon the negative responses - stares abruptly averted glances, and those people who stiffly turn away - as part of the social cost of being disabled, and not manage it effectively, and be undermined in terms of my self-worth" (p. 43).

Being disabled carries with it a burden of being dissimilar and atypical (Zee, 1983). Because of this, disabled individuals are often classified as inferior to able-bodied individuals (Zee, 1983). Someone who is noticeably disabled is often avoided or ignored because able-bodied individuals feel uncomfortable and awkward around them (Hart, Zasloff, & Benfatto, 1996; Eddy et al. 1988). Disabled individuals may wait twice as long for a restaurant table and once seated experience fewer interactions and less eye contact with the restaurant staff than an able-bodied customer (Thompson, 1982).

This literature review first covers the social response to a disabled individual and the impact that the

response has on the disabled individual. Secondly, the social and psychological benefits that can come from a partnership between the disabled individual and an assistance dog. Finally, the social drawbacks of owning a service dog will be discussed.

Social Response to a Disability and the Consequences

However, not all disabilities, such as a hearing impairment, are obvious to an observer (Hart et al., 1996). Since this is true, a hearing impaired individual may be approached as able-bodied until it becomes apparent that this person cannot hear (Hart et al., 1996). Upon realization, the able-bodied person tends to retreat from the encounter because they feel uncomfortable (Hart et al., 1996).

As a result of anxious feelings, able-bodied individuals often engage in less eye contact, physically position themselves further from the disabled, feel guilty, and have negative attitudes toward disabled individuals (Hart, Hart, & Bergin, 1987; Valentine, Kiddo, & LaFleur, 1993). Consequently they remain emotionally distant from them (Hart et al., 1987; Valentine et al., 1993). Due to these actions and feelings, the able-bodied often do not choose to socially interact with the disabled. Their disposition then constructs a social barrier which results in limitations placed on the disabled individual's social interactions, which in turn affects the disabled's psychological well-being. The disabled may feel as though they are invisible in public because others ignore and avoid them (Eddy et al., 1988). Overall, many feel socially isolated (Eddy et al., 1988). From these feelings come higher levels of depression, lower self-esteem and an external locus of control for the disabled (Allen & Blascovich, 1996).

Disabled children experience many of the same situations and consequently endure many of the same feelings. However, it may actually be more stressful since the children are missing the social support that is needed during development (Mader, Hart, & Bergin, 1989). If this social support is missing, the children may not mature at the "normal" rate of children due to the lack of social opportunities and the negative social feedback they receive from being disabled (Mader et al., 1989). When the children experience the rejection and stigmatism of being disabled, they begin to focus on their weaknesses and this has a negative affect on their self identity (Zee, 1983).

Benefits of a Partnership With an Assistance Dog

Disabled owners often obtain service animals in order to help them in some physical aspect of their life. Studies have been conducted that show that when a disabled individual is paired with a service animal, the physical aspect of the relationship is not the only part that benefits. Through the pairing, a strong emotional bond often forms between the human and canine. As a consequence of this bond, many areas of the owners psychosocial well-being are enhanced; self-esteem, assertiveness, confidence, independence, and cheerfulness (McCulloch, 1993; Valentine et al., 1993). The disabled owner also develops a stimulus to be active, a need for affiliation, increased motivation, social cohesion or more social interactions, and other positive traits (McCulloch, 1993; Valentine et al., 1993).

The benefits of service dog ownership can be split into two broad categories; social benefits and psychological benefits. The social benefits include such things as the increase in smiling, interactions and the overall acknowledgement from society. Psychological benefits include feeling less lonely, more independent, higher self-esteem, more cheerful and so on. Each of these types of benefits will now be examined in more detail.

Social Benefits

In America approaching strangers is relatively uncommon, which puts those that are already socially isolated at even a greater disadvantage (Hunt, Lynette, & Gomulkiewicz, 1992). A decrease in social recognition could be a consequence of a stereotype that exists in our culture. It is common to believe that if someone is beautiful they must also have other positive characteristics. The disabled are not seen to fit this stereotype, and so are often looked down upon. This stereotype may be counteracted if the disabled person has a service dog with them. Dogs are seen as social and companion animals and we tend to relate these positive traits back to the owner (Geries-Johnson & Kennedy, 1995). Rassbach and Wilson (1992) found that people pictured with dogs were ranked significantly higher than those without a dog for looking happy and looking relaxed. Consequently, when a service dog is present, others may perceive the disabled as more likable, approachable, happier and thus friendlier, than when unaccompanied (Geries-Johnson et al., 1995). The likelihood of an approach and interaction is also greater when there is an outside stimulus to base the social interaction on, such as the service dog (Hunt et al., 1992). The dog serves to attract people with which the owner can then engage in conversation, without the owner making an effort to find someone to converse with (Hunt et al., 1992). It has been shown that a disabled child with a companion dog receives more social recognition from other children even when the children have been told that the dog is working and they should not disrupt the dog (Zee, 1983).

Assistance dogs increase social acknowledgement of the disabled, which helps to overcome some of the social rejection that is experienced (Valentine et al., 1993). This was demonstrated by Hart, Hart and Bergin in 1987 on the socializing effect of service dogs on their owners. They found that there was an average of eight approaches by a member of the community when the team went on a trip downtown. When the disabled individual went alone, there was an average of one friendly approach. A control group, disabled individuals without service dogs, was used that also reported an average of one approach. It was also found that when a disabled individual was accompanied by a dog, 18.1% of passersby smiled and when unaccompanied by a dog only 5% smiled. When the dog was present, individuals were more likely to socially recognize a disabled individual and engage in a social interaction.

On the social aspect, Valentine et al. (1993) conducted a survey of ten individuals with mobility impairments and fourteen with hearing impairments. On a scale from one to five, with five being extremely important, the social importance of their dog for mobility impaired individuals was 4.1 and that of hearing impaired was 3.1 (Valentine et al., 1993). This is most likely due to the fact that a mobility impaired individual has more visible impairments and thus may experience greater social challenges (Valentine et al., 1993). The study also reported 80% of the mobility impaired and 50% of hearing impaired subjects experienced more social recognition with the dog. Hart et al. (1996), reported that 75.7% of the owners relationships with friends, community, and family members improved after receiving an assistance dog.

Psychological Benefit

On the psychological aspect, Valentine et al. (1993) reported that 90% of mobility impaired and 29% of hearing impaired subjects reported being more independent and less lonely after receiving a dog. The large difference is most likely due to the fact that the mobility impaired individuals feel much more dependence on others (Zee, 1983). The study also noted that all of the subjects reported feeling more capable after working with a dog (Valentine et al., 1993). Hearing dogs, as reported by Hart et al. (1996), increased their owners psychological well-being by making them feel safer, more aware of sounds and less lonely.

Allen and Blascovich (1996) conducted a study of 48 individuals split into two groups with matched characteristics. The experimental group received service dogs after one month and the control group received dogs twelve months later. The subjects completed questionnaires every six months for two years, on which data was compiled to give information on self-esteem, internal locus of control, psychological wellbeing, community integration and others. For the experimental group, these areas went up substantially within six months of receiving the service dog and continued to rise throughout the study while the control group stayed about the same. In month thirteen the control group received their dogs and began to experience the same affects as the experimental group had. This study demonstrates that service dogs can remarkably increase the psychological wellbeing of a disabled individual.

Social Drawbacks of Owning a Service Dog

Although service dogs tend to break down some of the social isolation that is experienced by disabled individuals, there are a few problems associated with the dogs and social encounters. There are instances when people want to talk and the disabled individual and may not have the time (Eddy et al., 1988). People may greet the dog but ignore the owner (Hart et al., 1987). People may become too friendly and pet the dog when it is working (Eddy et al., 1988). Conversation, while welcomed, is often centered on the dog, not the person (Eddy et al., 1988). There are also problems with businesses denying access even though a service dog is legally able to accompany them to almost any public location. Whereas these drawbacks may exist, owners tend to agree that the psychosocial benefits outweigh the problems (Valentine et al., 1993).


Someone who is physically, mentally, or hearing impaired not only has their own physical challenges to overcome, but also those additional challenges imposed by society. A service dog can help those that are socially isolated receive social acknowledgement from society. It is this positive social contact that helps individuals develop self-esteem, making them feel better about themselves by becoming more independent (Hart, 1995). Also, due to the increase in social acceptance, they are more likely to become more integrated in their community (Allen et al., 1996).

An assistance dog counteracts many of the negative social responses to a disability, such as staring, by creating a focus other than the disability itself. With this reduction of focus on the disability comes a lessened psychological and social impact of being different that often comes with being disabled. The social and psychological benefits that can come from forming a partnership between the disabled and an assistance dog increases the overall wellbeing of the individual. A discussion of the social drawbacks of owning a service dog shows that although there are some drawbacks, the benefits often outweigh them. From this literature review the conclusion can be reached that a service dog can be beneficial in most cases to aid a disabled individual not only in practical ways, but possibly more importantly both psychologically and socially.

Site Contents The Library Photos/Videos Obedience Competition Assistance Dogs Nose Related Dog Work Protection Training Other Dog Work Misc. Info/Resources E-mail Lists, Etc. Search this Site Site Index