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Assistance dogs at the heart of the family

by Chris Diefenthaler, Executive Director, Assistance Dogs International

For publication on May 15 - UN International Day of Families

We often hear pets described as being “one of the family”. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 85 percent of dog owners consider their four-legged friend to be part of the family (at 76 percent, the figure for cats is slightly lower - which may say more about cats than their owners). The growing number of bitter custody battles over who gets the family pet underlines just how much we relate to them.

Sociologist Andrea Laurent-Simpson goes even further in her book Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household, claiming that pets are increasingly seen as siblings to existing children, or even as children and grandchildren in themselves. Not many of us would go that far, but it’s clear that pets - especially dogs - play a significant role in family life for many people.

For families living with an assistance dog, however, the relationship is more complex, and as we mark the UN International Day of Families, it’s a good time to celebrate the role that assistance dogs play in family life. For young people with a disability, an assistance dog doesn’t just provide greater independence, wellbeing and dignity, it can help parents and siblings to cope too. For the families of seniors living with dementia, an assistance dog can be a calming and reassuring influence on the entire household. Parents of children with autism have described how bringing an assistance dog into the home has been like a fresh start, enabling the whole family to enjoy days out and other activities which were previously simply too difficult.

It is particularly apt that the theme of this year’s International Day of Families is urbanisation, which it describes as “one of the most important megatrends shaping our world and the life and wellbeing of families worldwide.” As the users of assistance dogs - especially guide dogs - know only too well, navigating busy city streets, congested traffic and mass transport systems can be extremely challenging. A recent survey by Guide Dogs UK showed that 97 percent of people with a vision impairment have problems with street clutter and street cafe furniture, while 90 percent had experienced challenges with cars parked on the pavement.

Parents of children with autism frequently report that routine shopping trips, days out or visits to friends and family are fraught with challenges - especially in crowded, traffic-choked urban environments. Family life is disrupted, siblings feel they are missing out and every outing has the potential for disaster. But with the help of a properly-trained autism assistance dog, many families are finding their lives transformed.

There is a growing body of evidence that assistance dogs have a beneficial impact for the whole family. A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found that “Living with a service dog was most closely associated with less health-related worry and better overall psychosocial health and emotional functioning, less total family impact from the chronic condition, and better emotional health and functioning, health-related quality of life (HRQOL).” The researchers also found that “the impact of a service dog may extend beyond the recipient and have positive impacts on family members’ psychosocial functioning as well. Occupational therapy practitioners should … recognize the potential for family-wide effects from the service dog’s assistance.”

These findings are backed up by data from ADI member K9s For Warriors, which took part in a 2016 research programme carried out by Purdue University into the benefits of PTSD dogs on military veterans and their partners. Among the conclusions were that “relationships may benefit from the addition of a service dog…benefits to family relationships was the third most frequently mentioned…service dogs might help couples and family processes through positive changes experienced by veterans.”

Although the more general benefits of having a family dog are well documented, it’s important that families wishing to bring in a dog to help with specific conditions such as autism or dementia seek help from professional trainers and reputable providers - which is where Assistance Dogs International (ADI) comes in. The ADI accreditation process ensures that members adhere to the highest operational, ethical, care and training standards for both dogs and users, to ensure they not only provide the best support for their users but are safe and well behaved in public.

Introducing a poorly-trained dog into a family with particular needs could be disastrous. As one study of pet dogs living in families including a child with a neuro-developmental disorder noted, there are “some potentially negative impacts on the pet, which it is important for parents to be aware of when bringing a dog into a home with children.” These included negative impacts brought on by children having tantrums - parents observed their dogs “running away, shaking or hiding on some of these occasions.” Having a properly-trained, ADI-certified assistance dog will not only help smooth integration with the entire family, it prioritises the dog’s health and welfare.

Families with assistance dogs know that they are an integral, essential part of the team. As we observe the International day of Families, it’s only right that assistance dogs are celebrated for their support and role at the centre of family life.

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