If you are a service dog handler, trainer, or part of the disability community, this may be a no brainer for you. But if you have never truly seen the impact(s) that a service dog can have, you might wonder why service dogs matter. Many people are familiar with guide dogs and their ability to help blind people navigate, but not everyone is aware of the wide array of skills a dog can learn, and how many people they can help. Service dogs not only perform life-saving tasks such as alerting someone with diabetes to dangerously low blood sugar, or calling 911 if someone falls, but they have also been shown to increase life satisfaction, physical health, psychosocial health, and overall well-being. Keep reading to find out just how much a service dog can positively impact someone’s life.
Many More People Could Benefit from a Service Dog
According to the latest data1, 61 million, or 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some form of physical or psychiatric disability. However, only a small fraction of disabled people currently have access to the benefits of a service dog.
Data on service dogs is limited and skewed towards dogs that were trained and provided from foundations or organizations (program dogs) vs owner-trained service dogs or service dogs raised by private trainers. Assistance Dogs International (ADI)2, an organization that accredits not-for-profit service dog programs, estimates that there are 16,766 assistance dogs in the North America Region. But this number considers service dogs trained by ADI-accredited organizations only. It doesn’t consider service dogs trained by their disabled owners or by non-ADI organizations or trainers. Thus, it is difficult to establish an exact number of service dogs in America. For example, ShareAmerica.gov3 estimates that there are about 500,000 service dogs in the US. Despite the lack of precise data, it is still clear that there are far fewer service dogs out working than there are people with disabilities who could benefit from one.
The Physical, Psychological, and Social Benefits of a Service Dog
Beyond the wide range4of tasks that a dog can be trained for to help mitigate a person’s disability, service dogs have significant impact on the lives of their handlers that go beyond what they have been trained for.
For people with physical or psychiatric disabilities, or chronic health conditions, every day and long-term life can be significantly impacted. Some disabled individuals may require some or full-time assistance from family, friends, or professional caretakers. Disability means facing both social and physical barriers which can result in social isolation and/or difficulty participating in desired activities.
What The Science Shows
Beyond what you will hear from many service dog handlers’ personal testimonies, multiple studies have shown that service dogs significantly improve various aspects of their person’s quality of life such as: psychosocial health, work/school-life participation, life satisfaction, independence, and self-esteem.
For example, in one study5, 36 participants reported that since obtaining a diabetic alert service dog, individuals not only experienced significant decreases in the frequency of hypoglycemia episodes, but also reported that they were less worried, had greater quality of life, and were more able to participate in physical activities.
Another study6 reviewing the impact of hearing alert dogs and mobility service dogs found that having a service dog had positive consequences on the person’s physical health, well-being, and activity level.
Studies7 that have examined how non-disabled people interact with both adult and child wheelchair users have found that those with service dogs receive more frequent social acknowledgment from passersby. This suggests that “the benefits of service dogs for their owners extend beyond working tasks to include enhanced opportunities for social exchange. The service dogs substantially reduced the tendency of able-bodied people to ignore or avoid the disabled person.” It is important to note that these studies were not about strangers interacting directly with the service dog. They noted acknowledgments towards the persons such as friendly glances, smiles, distance, and conversation.
Friendly reminder: do not pet8 or interact with a service dog while they’re working!
Service Dogs Truly Matter
From trained tasks that directly mitigate a disability, to the non-trained benefits that they bring, it is clear that service dogs make an incredible impact in the lives of their person. They are so much more than medical aids. Service dogs are life-changing, and even life-saving animals. There are however an incredible number of barriers that so many disabled individuals face when trying to obtain or train a service dog. Keep an eye out for our follow up blog to learn about what these barriers are, and how Atlas is breaking them down!
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Disability Impacts All of Us
 Assistance Dogs International, Member Program Statistics
 Share America.gov, Service Dogs Save Lives
 Atlas Assistance Dogs, All About Service Dogs
 National Institutes for Health, Diabetic Alert Dogs: A Preliminary Study of Current Users
 BMC Health Services, The Impact of Service and Hearing Dogs on Health-related Quality of Life and Activity Level
 National Institutes for Health, The Effects of Service Dogs on Social Acknowledgment of People in Wheelchairs
 Atlas Assistance Dogs, Service Dog Etiquette: How to Interact with Service Dogs
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers. For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit www.atlasdog.org or contact email@example.com