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Canine Trauma

The Use of Service Dogs as an Adaptive Strategy
A Qualitative Study

Author: Mary Michelle Camp
Degrees: B.S. Natural Science Biology, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA (1997)
M.O.T. University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA (in progress)


Objective. To describe, qualitatively, the use of service dogs by individuals with physical disabilities and the meaning of this experience for service dog owners.

Method. Five service dog owners were observed and interviewed on multiple occasions using an ethnographic approach.

Results. Themes identified included: increased community participation, "closer than family," increased social contact, personal skill development, having fun, responsibility, adjustment, challenges, independence, someone to watch over me, and "I feel like an able-bodied person."

Conclusion: Service dogs are used to enhance independence in occupational performance areas and contribute to improvements in psychosocial functioning. Given these benefits, service dogs could be viewed as a form of assistive technology that occupational therapists may want to consider as an alternative to traditional devices for some of their clients.

Although occupational therapists (OTs) commonly recommend assistive devices to compensate for functional deficits, the abandonment rate for these devices has been estimated to be as high as 75%, highlighting the importance for therapists to make appropriate equipment recommendations that best match the needs of their clients (Scherer & Galvin, 1994). One alternative that could be viewed as a form of assistive technology is the use of service dogs to provide compensatory functions both at home and in the community (Hanebrink & Dillon, 2000).

Service dogs assist individuals with disabilities to achieve greater independence in a variety of performance areas including activities of daily living, home management, functional mobility, socialization, emergency alerting, and environmental control (Delta Society, 2000). In addition to increasing independence in these occupational performance areas, service dog ownership has also been shown to have significant psychosocial benefits, such as improved self-esteem, increased social interaction, decreased stress, and greater internal locus of control (Eddy, Hart, & Boltz, 1988; Mader & Hart, 1989; Valentine, Kiddoo, & LaFleur, 1993; Winkler, Fairnie, Gericevich, & Long, 1989). Despite these benefits, most occupational therapists do not recommend service dogs as a means of compensation for functional deficits (Zapf, 1998). Considering the high rate of abandonment for other assistive devices, it may be useful for therapists to consider service dogs as a potential alternative for some clients.


Assistive Technology. According to the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (1988), assistive technology (AT) is defined as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." The use of assistive technology has been shown to have significant benefits, including increased environmental control and greater independence in all occupational performance areas (Campbell, 1991; Dickey & Shealey, 1987; McDonald, Boyle, & Schumann, 1989; Platts & Fraser, 1993). Clients who utilize assistive technology have also reported improvements in psychosocial factors such as social interaction and self-esteem (Swinth, 1997). Despite these benefits, assistive technology has also been shown to have significant drawbacks including cost, device mobility, and high rates of abandonment, among others (Carey & Sale, 1994; Todis & Walker, 1993).

Quality of life issues were frequently cited as predictors of assistive technology use or disuse (Sherer, 1993; Swinth, 1997). Swinth found that adolescents differentiated assistive technology into technology that separated them from their peers by emphasizing their differences, and technology that united them to their peers by providing tools for social interaction and independence. The adolescents in her study also described the effect of technology on their perceived autonomy, noting that assistive technology provided an increased opportunity for independence, yet also, at times, fostered feelings of dependence because of their need to rely upon assistive technology for so many functions. These quality of life issues of social interaction and autonomy may substantially influence assistive technology satisfaction and must be accounted for in the assistive technology selection process.

Service Dogs as an Alternative Assistive Technology Solution. One potential adaptation for occupational performance limitations that is rarely recommended by OTs is the use of a service dog (Zapf, 1998). Service dogs are specially trained to help individuals with disabilities to maximize their independence in a variety of performance areas (Delta Society, 2000). Because service dog training is tailored to match the specific needs of each individual client, the particular tasks that any service dog performs vary. Some examples of these duties may include moving laundry from the washer to the dryer, giving money or a credit card to a cashier, dialing 911 or alerting passersby of an emergency, retrieving a ringing telephone, and opening the door for a delivery person (Allen & Blascovich, 1996; Delta Society, 2000; Sunderlin, 1999; Zarbock, 1997). Given these functions, service dogs could potentially be considered a form of assistive technology under the Technology- Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (1988), in that they too are "used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." The State of Montana Medicaid Program has recently acknowledged this classification by expanding its reimbursement of assistive technology to include the purchase and upkeep of service dogs for individuals with disabilities based upon the assessment findings of an inter-disciplinary team including an occupational therapist (Rough, 2000).

Several popular press articles have described how service dogs can increase the participation and independence of individuals with disabilities (Sunderlin, 1999; Zarbock, 1997). Seldom, however, have service dogs been studied using a rigorous methodology that would allow generalizability to a larger population. In a rare randomized controlled study, Allen and Blascovich (1996) assigned 48 adult participants with severe mobility disabilities to either an experimental group that received service dogs one month after the study began or to a control group that received their service dogs only at the completion of the study. The experimental group demonstrated significant increases in school attendance, part-time employment, use of public transportation, and community integration measures. They were further shown to require a 68% decrease in paid or unpaid assistance hours. Five of the participants moved to more independent living situations following service dog acquisition; others reported plans to move provided that they could find residences where their service dogs would be welcomed. Wait-list controls demonstrated similar improvements after receiving their dogs. The longitudinal, experimental design of this study provided dramatic evidence of improvements in functional independence following service dog acquisition.

Other researchers have studied improvements in social interactions following service dog acquisition (Eddy, et al., 1988; Fick, 1993; Hart, Hart, & Bergin, 1987; Mader & Hart, 1989). Eddy, et al. examined the social acknowledgments (e.g., smiles, conversation, eye contact, touch) received by adults with physically disabilities who were observed in a shopping mall and a university campus with and without a service dog present. Participants with a service dog present received significantly more social acknowledgments and fewer episodes of gaze aversion or path avoidance than the participants in the no service dog condition. In a follow-up study, Mader and Hart (1989) found similar results with child participants, aged 10-15, who were observed both on a school playground and in a shopping mall with or without a service dog present. These studies suggest a socializing effect of service dog ownership that may help to counteract the documented social barriers often experienced by individuals with disabilities (Schneider & Anderson, 1980).

The interaction between individuals and their service dogs has also been shown to improve psychological factors such as self-esteem, internal locus of control, and assertiveness, and to decrease depression and loneliness (Allen & Blascovich, 1996; Fick, 1993; Valentine, et al., 1993; Winkler, et al., 1989). In a survey of 24 service dog owners, 90% reported that they felt safer, less lonely, and more independent since acquiring their service dog (Valentine, et al.). Of the participants with mobility impairments, all indicated that they had "more freedom to be capable" (p. 117) since they acquired their service dog.

Despite these documented psychosocial and occupational performance benefits, service dogs are not commonly recommended by occupational therapists as an adaptive strategy. In a survey of 43 OTs, Zapf (1998) found that 74.4% of therapists had assessed their clients’ assistive technology needs, while only 27% had ever considered using a service dog as a potential adaptation. This discrepancy may be explained, in part, by limited empirical research on the use of service dogs from an occupational therapy perspective.

Virtually all service dog research has been done from the perspective of social work and/or traditional medical models (Allen & Blascovich, 1996; Eddy, et al., 1988; Hart, et al., 1987; Valentine, et al., 1993). Findings from this research provide convincing evidence that improvements in functional independence and psychological factors can be achieved through service dog ownership. However, research does not explore why or how service dogs facilitated these improvements, nor does it identify factors in the service dog/ owner interaction that promote a successful match to the owners’ needs. Research that examines these issues is essential to provide therapists groundwork from which to consider service dog recommendations when assessing potential adaptations for their clients with physical disabilities.

The purpose of this study was to describe, qualitatively, the use of service dogs by adolescents and adults with physical disabilities and to gain understanding of service dogs to their owners. Findings document the ways in which service dogs promote independence in occupational performance areas and increase the information available to occupational therapists about this adaptive strategy.



I utilized an ethnographic approach, combining interviews and observation, to describe the use of service dogs as an adaptive strategy by persons with physical disabilities (Spradley, 1979). The "insider perspective" derived from this research approach is well suited to the client-centered philosophy of occupational therapy and provides a rich description of the phenomenon and meaning of service dog ownership. Furthermore, a qualitative approach was chosen because the use of service dogs as an adaptive strategy has not been well studied. It was hoped that the depth of description afforded by a qualitative approach would be useful for generating future research questions.


Participants included five persons with mobility impairments, three males and two females, who owned service dogs at the time of the study. Individuals who had owned their service dogs for less than six months, who did not obtain their service dogs through an established service dog training program, or who utilized their dogs solely for seizure-alert, hearing deficits, or visual impairments were excluded from the study.

Four of the participants were nominated in accordance with Krefting's (1991) guidelines, which suggest that nomination of a sample increases the transferability of themes by selecting informants who are considered representative of a population. These service dog owners were nominated by the director of the Delta Society Service Dog Resource Center, a center designed to provide information on the use of service dogs and to establish national standards on their training. Emphasis was placed on nominating individuals of varied age, gender, ethnicity, disability, and time since service dog acquisition in an effort to begin to characterize the variability of the experience of service dog ownership.

A fifth participant, John, was also included in the study following a local newspaper article describing his use of a service dog to complement other assistive devices he owned. He was the state distributor for electronic aids for daily living and I hoped that his experience using both a service dog and other assistive technology would provide a unique perspective on the use of a service dog as an adaptive strategy. See Table one for specific demographic information on the participants. All names of participants and their dogs have been changed to protect confidentiality.


After approval by the university Institutional Review Board, the director of the Service Dog Resource Center nominated potential participants and provided their contact information to me with their permission. All nominated individuals who volunteered to participate in repeated interviews and observations, were included. I obtained their written consent to participate in the research, including being audiotaped and videotaped, following this selection process.

I collected data from the service dog owners primarily through observation and interview in the participants’ homes or during community outings. I utilized Spradley’s (1979) ethnographic interview technique to collect interview data so that the experience of service dog ownership could be characterized using the language and perspectives of the participants. Before undertaking the research, I practiced this interview approach with a researcher experienced in Spradley’s technique.

I began with a single grand tour question: "Tell me about owning a service dog." I followed with open-ended questions to elaborate upon topics introduced by the participant, within the framework of the following research guiding concerns:

  1. How is the service dog used as an adaptive strategy to increase independence in occupational performance?
  2. What perceived benefits does the service dog provide for the individual?
  3. What perceived drawbacks does the service dog have for the individual?
  4. What is the meaning of the interaction between person and service dog for the individual?

Two to three interviews, each lasting approximately one hour, were performed with each participant. Follow-up interviews were used to confirm and expand upon themes identified during the first interview. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim for data analysis.

In addition, I recorded detailed observations in field notes of the interactions between owners and their service dogs and of their use of service dogs to assist with tasks. A portion of these observations was videotaped for later analysis. Observations served as a method of triangulation of data sources in order to increase the credibility of findings in accordance with Guba’s model (as cited in Krefting, 1991). I maintained a field journal to enhance credibility by 1) documenting the research process to provide an auditable trail and 2) examining my own thoughts, perspectives, and preconceptions.

Before undertaking this study, I volunteered with a service dog training program for 12 months and attended the Delta Society’s National Service Dog Conference as a means of enhancing prolonged engagement. Prior to beginning this study, I spent approximately 150 hours talking with service dog owners, healthcare workers, dog trainers, and service dog educators about their experiences with service dogs. Though data were not collected for analysis during this period, these experiences provided additional background from which I could begin to analyze data gathered from the participants.

Data Analysis

The content of interviews and observations was analyzed and coded into descriptive themes using the computer software program, NUD*IST (Qualitative Solutions and Research Pty Ltd, 1997), and hand coding. A semantic network, a web of phrases and concepts, was also created in an effort to understand how themes were connected in the minds of the participants (Good, 1977).

I re-coded data repeatedly using both NUD*IST and hand coding as a means of triangulating data analysis techniques to verify themes (Huberman & Miles, 1994). Emerging themes were discussed with participants and an occupational therapist specializing in assistive technology to clarify understanding.

Videotapes of the service dogs and their owners were analyzed using the themes identified from interviews as another means of triangulating data sources. Confirmations and inconsistencies among the interview themes and the videotaped interactions were examined in an effort to best characterize the participants’ perspectives.

Common Themes in the Experience of Owning a Service Dog

Themes that may help to guide occupational therapists when considering whether or not to recommend a service dog were identified for each of the four guiding concerns. These themes are detailed under the following headings corresponding to these four concerns.

Service Dogs as an Adaptive Strategy

Participants used their service dogs as an adaptive strategy to compensate for physical deficits such as limited ROM, strength, motor control, and endurance. They used their dogs to perform specific tasks to increase their independence in a number of performance areas and to increase their ability to participate in community activities.

Assistance with Daily Tasks. Participants’ used their service dogs to assist with mobility, bracing to get up, opening doors, turning on/off lights, retrieving the telephone, placing clothing in the laundry, and other tasks specific to their individual needs. By far, the most common task that participants used their service dogs for was to retrieve dropped items. As one participant said, "He is worth his weight in gold just for picking things up that I drop." The participants described how their dogs did this task automatically, often without being given the command. For example, Megan described an incident in which she was unaware that she had dropped a $10 bill while they were in the grocery store until her dog, Sam, picked it up and set it on her lap.

The participants readily adapted this task of retrieving items to match their specific needs. For example, Seena used her dog to get her water bottle when she was in the gym and to bring her food from the refrigerator so that she could conserve her energy for other activities. Megan frequently had Sam retrieve her medicine bottle when her arthritis was inflamed and her hands were "shaky". Retrieval was not limited to small items as Megan described, "On days when my hands are sore, picking up the phone book is out of the question. He (Sam) has grabbed a phone book and drug it to me."

For John, a university student with quadriplegia resulting from a spinal cord injury at the C-1 level, his dog’s ability to open doors was even more important than retrieval. John described how he had previously had to wait outside between classes, often on cold winter days, until someone passed by who could open the door. With his dog, Dakota, he was able to access university buildings and other public places without additional assistance. As he put it, "Before I had no control if I needed to get in or out, so I have really used the door part since I got her." Although he owned two electronic aids for daily living that he had used to open doors at home before acquiring his service dog, Dakota had taken over this task.

Other participants also used their dogs to substitute for some of the functions of assistive technology. Jason said, "It [my dog] is like a $10,000 wheelchair and yet I get much more out of him." Seena described her experience with assistive technology in this way, "A piece of equipment is a piece of equipment. You use it, but you don’t really bond with it. Pretty soon it will break down and then you will have trouble getting funding to get a new one." Although she owned some assistive technology, she said that she preferred to use her service dog because the dog could complete tasks more quickly and easily than she could by using the equipment herself.

Increased Participation. All of the participants described an increase in their participation in activities since the acquisition of their service dogs. The specific ways that their dogs helped to enhance their participation varied. For Jason, his dog pulled his wheelchair during sports or along the beach, replacing the recreation that he had lost after his spinal cord injury and a subsequent broken arm that failed to heal properly. He described his dog's impact on his recreation as follows, "I broke my left arm in 1984 and my life changed dramatically. No more sports, no more physical activities, and no more hanging around with those people that I did them with. All of a sudden a huge part of my life was gone. Well, this dog renewed it and brought it back." He expressed his dog’s importance saying, "You have this huge amount of choices recreating with friends and I just do a few of them. So you take away that dog, all of a sudden, my #1, and not just my #1, but 80% of my recreation goes away."

Both Seena and Megan used their service dogs to complete tasks that would require large amounts of energy such as loading the laundry or making the bed. Megan said, "Having a service dog, I will do things that I wouldn’t have done without him. I will go to the mall and spend three hours window shopping, where if I didn’t have him I would spend a half-hour because I am tired and sore." Without their dogs, both women felt that they would not have the endurance to participate in a large percentage of their productive and leisure activities.

For Brian, his service dog increased his opportunities to participate in activities indirectly, by enhancing his confidence when going out alone, "I feel a lot more secure. I feel like I can go anywhere now. I feel like I am an able-bodied person." John felt that his service dog enhanced his ability to participate in community activities directly, by opening doors to allow him access. He reported that having a service dog gave him "a lot more opportunities to do things. She allows me to go places by myself." Without his service dog, he said that he would not go out nearly as often because he would have to rely on other people for help.

Benefits of Service Dog Ownership

Participants identified a variety of benefits that they had gained from owning a service dog including companionship, independence, increased self-esteem, security, increased social contact, skill development, and fun. As one participant put it, "Without a doubt, people don’t have a clue about the amount of rewards you are going to get out of a dog." Following are some of the most common themes of rewards that reoccurred across participants.

"Closer than family". Participants’ relationships with their dogs were by far the most common topic they discussed. Seena characterized this experience by saying, "She is closer than family to me and like no other relationship I will ever have again." The other participants also described their relationships with their dogs and how their dogs provided love, support, friendship, and laughter.

Brian: "He is there all the time, more than any person ever could be. More than anyone."

Megan: "One of the real bright spots about him, if I am having a bad day, he will make me laugh."

Jason: "I think the biggest thing my dog gave me was love."

John: "It’s just having somebody here. I don’t know how to put it into words. Sometimes it’s just better to have the companionship of a dog than to have the environmental part do all the work."

Participants talked about their relationships with their dogs more than any other topic. For some, this relationship was even more important than the tasks that the dog could perform. Jason, for example, said that the relationship accounted for 90% of the benefits he received from his dog. He said, "The two biggest ones [benefits] are non-judgmental love and acceptance." More often however, participants expressed the relational benefits as inseparable from the physical task benefits, as Brian described, "I got the dog to assist with the physical, emotional, and psychological challenges. I think that is a real good deal."

Social Acknowledgements. Related to the theme above, participants also described how their service dogs greatly increased their opportunities to develop relationships with others. All participants talked about how many more passersby made eye contact or initiated conversations when they had their dogs with them. John described this experience as follows, "People see the dog and then they see me. It’s a step in the right direction. Without the dog, it’s just another guy in a wheelchair. People look at you a bit differently when you have the dog with you." One participant said that she always added on 30 minutes whenever she was going out so that she would have time to talk to all the people who approached her. Another said, "The dog can be that bridge between man and the rest of society."

Personal Skill Development. Another benefit that participants identified was the development of personal skills. Jason said, "It was tremendously rewarding learning different skills." He described how his experience owning service dogs had helped him to develop the skills of being consistent, giving praise, and showing emotion. Before he received his first dog, he said that he had been very angry about his injury and had difficulty expressing emotion. He discovered, however, that part of maintaining the dog’s optimal performance was the ability to give praise and show affection when the dog acted appropriately. He developed these abilities, and others, as he learned dog handling skills. He described how these skills carried over into his relationships with people and into his school presentations, helping him to interact more effectively with people.

Brian similarly noted how he had learned the importance of consistency when handling his service dog. Because his dog had not completed as much training as the others in this study, he had experienced many challenges with getting the dog to consistently follow commands. Although these challenges had been frustrating, he said, in reference to the training, "I have done a lot of that and it is rewarding... he is really coming along."

Other participants also identified skills that they had developed through on-going training with their dogs and community interactions. Seena talked about being a shy and unassertive person before acquiring her service dog. She learned to be more assertive when faced with individuals who tried to deny her service dog access to community venues. For example, she described a situation at the gym when a man tried to tell her that her dog was not allowed to enter. Despite feeling intimidated, she brought her dog in anyway, knowing that this was her legal right. Seena said that "over time he began to realize that there is no big deal about this woman and this dog being here." She credited her dog for helping her to have the confidence to make this assertive stance and for putting her into situations in which she was able to develop this skill.

Having Fun. When asked about their experiences owning a service dog, almost all participants described how much fun it had been. Jason used this word 15 times in the first interview. In speaking about his dog pulling him to the interview site he said, "Not only did he get me down here as easily as you got down here, but he actually went into another spectrum and made it totally fun." Seena talked about the fun times that she had with Annie pulling her along the ice while playing broomball. Megan said that without her service dog, "It just wouldn’t be as fun. Life would be more boring." All of the participants described fun experiences with their dogs in the community, interacting with other people or just playing at home.

"Drawbacks" of Service Dog Ownership

Participants, for the most part, did not talk about the drawbacks of owning a service dog. Instead, they labeled difficulties that they had experienced as responsibilities, adjustment periods, and challenges. John, for instance, said "I honestly haven’t had any difficulties at all." Yet he did describe some of the challenges and responsibilities associated with service dog ownership that he had faced over the past six months.

Responsibilities. Most of the owners mentioned the obvious responsibilities of owning a service dog including feeding, grooming, toileting, and veterinary care. Further responsibilities included taking time to maintain the dog’s health through regular exercise and enhancing the dog’s abilities through on-going training. The theme of responsibility was especially prevalent when I asked what they would say to someone who was considering getting a service dog. John answered that question as follows, "It was great for me, but it does take a little work. You know, the cleaning and the feeding. It takes a lot of responsibility. I would recommend it to anybody that’s responsible enough to have it." Jason defined responsibility even more broadly saying:

the dog should be integrated into your life... it’s like having a baby, you can’t put them in the closet while you go out dancing at night, but you can do that with a dog... I don’t agree with that... you are minimizing him and not using him for what he is trained for.

For all of the participants, having a service dog also meant committing time and money to the care of another living creature. Even if the dog was initially donated by an organization, few organizations offered funding to maintain the dog’s care throughout its lifespan.

Adjustment Period. Participants who had recently acquired their service dogs spoke about the adjustments that they were making to integrate their dogs into their lives. During this period, they learned what they could expect from their dogs, how they could maximize their dogs’ abilities and adapt them to meet their individual needs, and how to incorporate their dogs into their daily routines. Patience seemed to be essential during this adjustment period. When asked to describe his experience owning a service dog, Brian, who had owned his dog for only seven months, replied, "It takes a lot of patience." He continued to use this word throughout the first interview. For him, his dog’s inconsistency in following commands was a source of potential frustration during this adjustment period. During the second interview, approximately one month later, Brian reported a marked improvement in his dog’s ability to follow commands consistently. He seemed more comfortable with his role of service dog owner and the overall tone of the interview was much more positive.

Participants who had owned their service dogs for a long time also remembered an initial adjustment period. Seena, who had owned Annie for nine years, described it as follows: "Like any new relationship, it took some adjustment and adaptation and patience and time. Just like any new marriage, you have to get a feel for what’s going to work."

Challenges. Whether it was cleaning up after a dog that had an accident in front of the hospital elevator or trying to get the dog’s leash untangled from the wheelchair, every participant had a story about a challenging time with his or her service dog. Most commonly, they described instances when the dog was not doing what it was trained to do. Brian described a number of these instances when his dog would not pick up his hat or get his cane on the first try. "Sometimes he won’t cooperate... he’ll act like a 12-year-old, so that is challenging," he said. Challenges such as these, particularly evident during the first few months of service dog ownership, further emphasize the importance of patience during this adjustment period.

The Meaning of Using a Service Dog

Although the meaning of using a service dog varied tremendously from one individual to the next, some themes seemed to be consistent across participants. These included a sense of independence, someone to watch over me, and "I feel like an able-bodied person."

Sense of Independence. Participants described many ways in which having a service dog made them feel more independent and enabled them to participate in activities without the aid of others. This independence did not only come from the tasks that the dog completed for the owner, but also in the tasks that they learned to do together. As one participant said, "It is like we are in it together, we will figure it out and we will work as a team." This sense of autonomy was described as making a tremendous difference in the participants’ perceptions of themselves.

I don’t have to depend on other people. Having that dependency, every time you have to ask for help... you think to yourself, either you are keeping a record of how many times you are having to depend on someone else or they are... Independence really carves into your self-esteem... when you are stuck having to depend on someone else your perception of yourself isn’t as high. A dog is not going to keep a record of how many times you ask it to do things for you (Seena).

Megan reported that she had recommended service dogs to people who were skeptical that they could affect their independence. "I’ll tell them that you’d be surprised how much more independent a dog will make you. It will just amaze you," she said. The sense of autonomy that the participants gained from their service dogs seemed to be an important factor in the meaning that this interaction had in their lives.

Someone to Watch Over Me. This surprising theme was introduced over and over again by participants who said that their dogs seemed to "keep an eye" on them or that they "watched to make sure that everything was okay." Brian described how his dog, Jake, would wait outside his van to make sure that the lift would come down properly. If the terrain was uneven and the flap did not flatten, then Jake would push it down with his paws so that the wheelchair could travel smoothly. Similarly, Megan talked about how her dog, Sam, would watch by the door of the kitchen in case she dropped her medicine bottle so that he could retrieve it for her if necessary. Seena described it in this way, "She [Annie] keeps tabs on me... When I’m walking slower than she does, she’ll always come back and check on me." Participants said that they felt more confident and secure knowing that their dogs always seemed to be watching out for them.

"I feel like an able-bodied person." Although Brian was the only participant to state this verbatim, all of the participants implied that their dogs made them feel less disabled. This was only in part the result of the tasks that the dog performed. More importantly, participants described how their dogs focused attention away from their disabilities. As Megan said "I find that when I am without him a lot of people look and I get really self-conscious. I feel like they are looking at me because of my wheelchair or whatever and if my dog is with me, then I feel they are looking at it." Having her dog with her changed her impression of how others perceived her.

Other participants described how their dogs also made them feel less disabled by shifting focus away from their disabilities. John described this experience by saying, "I don’t think people realize that I am human. I do have a brain... They don’t know how to treat people with chairs, I think is the best way to describe it. But now with the dog, it’s opened up a new climate." His dog changed the way he felt that others perceived him, and in so doing, helped him feel less disabled. For all participants, the meaning of having a service dog seemed to be connected with this shift of focus away from their disabilities and onto their abilities to accomplish tasks independently by using their dogs.


Reilly (1962) stated "Man has a vital need for occupation" and "a need to master his environment, to alter and improve it (p.5) [sic]." For these participants, their service dogs did not only provide a means of completing tasks, but also provided a means for fulfilling these needs. By increasing social participation, facilitating personal skill development, and providing responsibilities to care for another living being, their service dogs promoted occupation and provided opportunities to master and improve their environments. Their service dogs helped to shift the participants from feelings of dependence to a renewed sense of efficacy and responsibility, restoring occupational roles that may have been lost to disability.

Benefits identified by participants were consistent with the literature which details positive effects of service dog ownership on self-esteem, security, loneliness, depression, and social contact (Allen & Blascovich, 1996; Fick, 1993; Valentine, et al., 1993; Winkler, et al., 1989). Participants in this study also identified benefits such as personal skill development and having "someone to watch over me" that had not been cited previously.

The theme of "I feel like an able-bodied person" suggests that owning a service dog changed the way participants felt that they were perceived by others, shaping their perceptions of themselves. Swinth (1997) described both assistive technology that increased social isolation by emphasizing differences and assistive technology that promoted social interaction. As the theme of "social acknowledgements" suggests, service dogs seem to belong in this latter category. Unlike owning a wheelchair or electronic aide, owning a dog is an experience that is familiar to individuals with or without a disability. In this way, service dogs act as common ground, bridging the differences that may cause social isolation and facilitating a renewed sense of connection with others. Service dogs, therefore, appear to be one avenue of enhancing what the ICIDH-2 terms, "social participation" (World Health Organization, 2000). Both by shaping the perceptions of others and by improving self-perceptions, service dogs help to facilitate increased participation.

Implications for Occupational Therapy

A recent article in OT Practice defined service dogs as "the ultimate assistive technology" (Hanebrink & Dillon, 2000). Considering the impact that their service dogs had on functional skills and psychosocial factors, this characterization seems to be reflective of the experiences of the participants in this study. Furthermore, this definition provides a means of conceptualizing service dogs within an occupational therapy framework. According to the OT Practice Framework, "participation and occupational engagement are the broad overarching outcomes of occupational therapy intervention" (American Occupational Therapy Association, 2000). Given that participants in this study reported that their service dogs enhanced community participation, independence, social interactions, and personal skill development, service dogs could be classified under this framework as a potential occupational therapy intervention.

Because OTs are currently one of the primary health care providers responsible for assessing clients’ assistive technology needs and recommending appropriate adaptations, they are in an ideal position to expand this role to include the assessment and recommendation of service dogs as another potential adaptive strategy. Some ocupational therapists in the state of Montana have already adopted this role under the Medicaid reimbursement system and are part of a multidisciplinary team responsible for assessing clients’ needs for a service dog (Rough, 2000). To be effective in this expanding practice area, OTs must understand how individuals with physical disabilities use their service dogs as an adaptive strategy and what factors affect the success of this strategy. Themes identified in this study, in combination with future research to clarify and expand upon these themes, may serve as a foundation from which occupational therapists can begin to consider the recommendation of service dogs for their own clients.


Despite efforts to sample a wide variety of service dog owners, all participants were European Americans in a relatively narrow age range, and thus their experiences may not be representative of all service dog owners. Further, participants identified few drawbacks to service dog ownership, perhaps because individuals who had predominantly positive experiences were more likely to stay in contact with the nominating source.

Future Research

Because the use of service dogs has only recently gained attention, research on the use of service dogs is extremely limited. This study has only begun to explore a number of common experiences among service dog owners and to identify some potential roles for occupational therapists working with this population. Sample research questions for future research include: How are occupational therapists currently working with service dog owners? What assessment strategies would be most effective to decide whether or not a service dog would be appropriate for a specific individual? Would service dog trainers benefit from occupational therapy consultations to adapt training to meet particular needs? What role do OTs have in the ongoing reassessment and adaptation process? How do service dogs compare to other forms of assistive technology in terms of satisfaction, abandonment, ability to meet individual needs, etc.? It is hoped that this study will foster further curiosity and spark continued interest in the exploration of service dogs as an adaptive strategy.


I would like to thank Yvonne Swinth for her insightful questions, encouragement, and practical advice. I would also like to acknowledge George Tomlin, Juli McGruder and Christine deRenne-Stephan, for their suggestions and support throughout the research process. I would also like to thank Susan Duncan and Tamara Whitehall of the Delta Society Service Dog Resource Center for their assistance in acquiring participants for this study. Lastly, I want to thank my five participants for openly sharing their experiences and generously devoting many hours to the completion of this project.

This research was completed in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Occupational Therapy from the University of Puget Sound.


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Table 1

Demographics of Service Dog Owners



Age/ Gender


Paid Hrs


Time Owned Current Dog

Time Owned Service Dogs

Name of Dog

Age of Dog





5 years

12 years


6 years





9 years

9 years


10 years





7 months

7 months


1.5 years



RA/ S. bifida


3 years

28 years


4 years





6 months

6 months


2 years

Note. M = male, F = female, SCI = spinal cord injury, CP = cerebral palsy, MD = muscular dystrophy, RA = rheumatoid arthritis, S. bifida = spina bifida, Wk = week

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