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Service-Dog Study Shows Benefits to Emotional Well-Being for Owners


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Elanco Animal Health, a division of Eli Lilly and Company, in collaboration with Purdue University's College of Veterinary Medicine, has released preliminary research findings that support the power of the human-animal bond.

The preliminary study results, which were shared during a presentation at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) in Orlando, Fla., show that in addition to the physical benefits service dogs provide their owners, they also contribute to emotional and psychosocial well-being.

The new research on the human-animal bond is part of a four-year primary research study on the emotional and health benefits of service dogs to their recipients. The goal of the three-part study is to produce groundbreaking evidence-based research documenting the "pet effect"—the impact of the human-animal bond on mental health and well-being.

"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."

The research project is led by Maggie O'Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue's College of Veterinary Medicine. The team also includes Ph.D. candidate Kerri Rodriguez and postdoctoral research fellow Jess Bibbo. O'Haire also leads Purdue's Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research (OHAIRE), which includes national and international collaborators, students, and community members working together to conduct rigorous scientific research on the unique and pervasive effects of interacting with animals. 

"Even though the benefits of service dogs for those with physical disabilities are well-recognized, the emotional and psychosocial effects are largely unknown," O'Haire said. "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. We hope to fulfill the critical need for additional research on this topic."

Researchers worked with Canine Assistants, a non-profit organization dedicated to education and placement of service dogs with children and adults who have physical disabilities or other special needs. Elanco has been a sponsor of Canine Assistants since 2015.

The study compared service dog recipients and their family members with people who are on a waiting list for service dogs and their families. Study participants completed an online survey about their emotional and psychosocial functioning. More than 300 surveys were returned—187 from those who had received service dogs, and their families and 118 from recipients on the waitlist and their families. 

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.  

Preliminary findings of the study indicate: 

  • Recipients of a service dog showed a higher overall quality of life as well as better emotional, social and work/school functioning than recipients who had not yet received a service dog.
  • Family members with a service dog in the home exhibited better social and emotional functioning as well as decreased worry as a result of the recipient's health than family members on the waitlist.
  • Family members with a service dog also exhibited better management of daily family activities than family members on the waitlist.
  • No differences were found between the two recipient groups in three other categories:  anger, companionship and sleep disturbance. 

"These preliminary findings are not surprising, but they are very significant," said O'Haire. "There is a wealth of positive anecdotal information on this topic, but comparatively few data-driven scientific measures of how dogs affect their human companions' sense of well-being. The research is a critical step in determining if these results are applicable to a broader range of pet owners."

Additional research is underway continue to confirm the initial results of this study, and provide the information to scientifically verify the benefits of the human-animal bond. This research is considered to be a critical step in providing much needed scientific evidence as a basis for fostering more serious attention to human-animal bond dynamics and related issues and policy concerns.

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