Animals with Special Populations

Service dogs for those with physical disabilities

Service dogs are trained to help people with physical disabilities with their activities of daily living. Roles include guide and hearing dogs for the visually or hearing impaired, and assistance dogs for those with ambulatory or other physical disabilities. Beyond performing functional tasks, service dogs also provide social, psychological, and economic benefits to their handlers. Within six-months of acquiring service dogs, owners showed significant increases in self-esteem, psychological well-being, internal locus of control, and community integration. They also demonstrated significant increases in school attendance and/or part-time employment, and significant decreases in their need for paid and unpaid assistance142.

Psychiatric service dogs

The training and use of psychiatric service dogs is a relatively recent development, and there has been little research on their efficacy. Nevertheless, dogs are being trained to perform tasks such as providing reminders to take medication, interrupting the repetitive behaviors of a person suffering from obsessive- compulsive disorder, or helping a veteran with PTSD to remain calm in an anxiety-provoking situation143.

Service dogs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are one type of psychiatric service dog. Children with ASD are prone to ‘bolting,’ which is a significant safety concern for parents. Parents of children with ASD report that—by preventing the child from running off and maintaining a watchful eye—having a service dog increases their child’s safety144.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, can be measured in saliva. Reductions in salivary cortisol can indicate a relaxation response. An exploratory study with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) found that there was a relationship between having a service dog and a reduced Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), as well as reductions in the number of disruptive behavioral incidents145. A similar relationship has been found with regard to veterans suffering from PTSD146.

Medical detection dogs

Cancer Detection

Dogs have been trained to detect cancer of the skin147, prostate148, ovaries149,150, bladder151, thyroid152, breast and lung153,154 and it is believed that appropriately trained dogs are able to accomplish this by detecting and recognizing a characteristic “odor signature” in the body, urine, sweat, breath, and blood155. This canine ability holds promise for early detection of cancer in economically disadvantaged locations where traditional medical services are limited156.

Seizure Alert and Response

Dogs have been trained to alert their owners with epilepsy to impending tonic-clonic seizures157 and to assist them with post-ictal recovery157. Dogs’ olfactory sensitivity to seizure related odors has been found to be even higher than with cancer or hypoglycemia158. An unexpected finding from studies in this area is that having a seizure alert dog reduces seizure frequency157,160.

Hypoglycemia Detection and Alert

Hypoglycemia is a common and potentially life-threatening complication of diabetes. Dogs have been trained to alert owners to conditions of low and high blood sugar. Although research in this area is in its infancy, those having hypoglycemia detection dogs report reduced calls to paramedics, decreased unconscious episodes, and improved independence161. A recent study with a large sample size indicates that although results vary with circumstances, using carefully selected and well-trained dogs improves episode detection accuracy162.