The continuum of pets and assistance dogs (Proceedings)


Guide dogs have assisted people with visual disabilities since 1819 in Vienna, and a school was established in the United States in the 1920s.

Guide dogs have assisted people with visual disabilities since 1819 in Vienna, and a school was established in the United States in the 1920s. In the 1980s, people with other disabilities were partnered with dogs at Canine Companions for Independence. Since then, assistance dogs for people using wheelchairs, people with hearing disabilities, and a host of other special partnering relationships have been established. At the same time, working roles of dogs for detection of agricultural products, termites, accelerants, and other products have been developed. Partnering with dogs in police work continues to expand and provide significant support for officers. The diversified, specialized roles of dogs present new contexts for veterinary care in which the dog's working role may be essential to the human partner, imposing unusual constraints required for the arrangements for care. Despite the acknowledged potential benefits of assistance dogs, some potential drawbacks exist that should be considered, including financial costs, behavior problems, failures in the placement, access problems, and the psychological consequences of having an assistance dog such as the dog's death (Sachs-Ericsson, Hansen, and Fitzgerald, 2002).

Many people working in the health professions wish to somehow incorporate animal-assisted activities or therapy into their work, either in the workplace or as an occasional activity. Opportunities will be increasing with the new International Society for Animal-Assisted Therapy serving to accredit such academic programs. This brief overview introduces some essential considerations. Additional information and search tools are available at the UC Davis Companion Animal Behavior website,

Animal-assisted activities

The array of volunteer-initiated visitation with animals to facilities comprise animal-assisted activities. These provide enjoyment to residents, perhaps on a regular scheduled basis, but are not part of a medical treatment plan.

Social visitation. The practice of volunteers visiting nursing homes, hospitals, or schools with their animals is a widespread social movement. Volunteers share their animals, resulting in increases in conversations and responsiveness from residents, for visits by a person, animal or both (Hendy, 1987). The animal increases the motivation of the volunteer, and the willingness to show up at the facility on a regular basis.

Instrumental assistance. Volunteers can be regularly scheduled to assist a pet owner living at home with essential petkeeping tasks. A classic program with this mission is Pets Are Wonderful Support in San Francisco (PAWS;, a model program that provides volunteer assistance to people with AIDS. Specific tasks needed by the person are performed by a volunteer upon request, including cleaning a litter box, walking a dog, delivering pet food, or taking the pet to the veterinarian.

Aquarium fish. Having animals in an institution, as with fish aquaria, may help establish a more natural and humane environment in which people are more comfortable. A study involving people with Alzheimer's disease living in specialized units found that their food intake increased after the introduction of fish aquaria; participants, who typically would be losing interest in food, gained weight (Edwards and Beck, 2002).

Animal-assisted therapy

When an animal's role is implemented as an aspect of medical treatment or to address a particular condition, it serves as animal-assisted therapy, going beyond just increasing enjoyment at a particular time. Beneficial psychosocial effects of animals for people occur in a wide range of circumstances (Hart, 2006).

Facilitation by animals of medical or psychological therapy. Therapists often incorporate animals as adjuncts to psychological therapy, especially with children, but also with the elderly. Therapy with cats and dogs for institutionalized elderly schizophrenic patients over a one year period led to improvements in social adaptive functioning, compared with a matched group of patients (Barak, Savorai, Mavashev, and Beni, 2001). In tests of a single animal therapy session for hospitalized psychiatric patients as compared with a routine therapeutic recreation session, reduced state anxiety levels resulted for patients with a variety of psychiatric disorders, and the recreation session was associated with reductions only for patients with mood disorders (Barker and Dawson, 1998). The two treatments did not significantly differ in effect.

Elderly men in a long stay psychiatry unit given visits by a therapy dog increased their verbal and non-verbal interactions above that when only the dog handler was present (Hall and Malpus, 2000). When animal-assisted therapy was offered to elderly people in long-term care facilities, those volunteering had experience with pets and wished that they currently had one (Banks and Banks, 2002). Their participation in the therapy was associated with lowered loneliness scores. People with Alzheimer's disease in a special care unit, provided a resident therapy dog, exhibited fewer problem behaviors across the 4 weeks of the study (McCabe, Baun, Speich, and Agrawal, 2002).

Assistance animals. Animals assisting people with disabilities establish a merged partnership that is transforming for the person, changing the person's identity and interactions with others (Sanders, 2000). Their constant presence assures meaningful support beyond what a person could provide, including unconditional positive regard.

Companion animals for people with special needs. Training of assistance animals has broadened to accommodate the specific needs of individual people, and specially trained dogs are placed as social dogs for persons who are isolated, shy, or autistic.

Full-time animal-assisted support with independent living

Companion animals fill an expanded role where people have specific needs. The importance of these animals suggests a need in animal care assistance that could be filled by volunteers to assist vulnerable people who are still living at home.

Psychosocial support provided by animals. The calming and comforting effects of animals can exert a meaningful source of psychosocial support for people, protecting against depression and loneliness (Mahalski, Jones, and Maxwell, 1988; Zasloff and Kidd, 1994). For people with Alzheimer's disease living at home with other family members, companion animals at home were associated with a lower prevalence of episodes of verbal aggression and anxiety (Fritz, Farver, Kass, and Hart, 1995).

Precarious and vulnerable individuals living independently. Elderly people over 65 years of age who were pet owners showed less deterioration over a one year period in Activities of Daily Living, however, pet owners in general were younger, married or living with someone, and more physically active than non-pet owners (Raina, Waltner-Toews, Bonnett, Woodward, and Abernathy, 1999).

Individualized animal-assisted support in residential facilities

Persons living in residential facilities today often are allowed pets. When a person requires assisted care, looking after a person's animal can become an additional task for the facility's staff. Such accommodation may be worthwhile, even from the staff's perspective, to increase the comfort and compliance of patients. Staff in facilities may find animal companions cost effective in improving patient behavior and quality of life.


Initiated by volunteers across the country, animal-assisted activities and therapy launched the scholarly field of human-animal interactions.


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Barker, S. B., and Dawson, K. S. 1998. The effects of animal-assisted therapy on anxiety ratings of hospitalized psychiatric patients. Psychiatric Services 49,797-801.

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Hart, L. A. 2006. Community context and psychosocial benefits of animal companionship. In: Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd ed. (A. Fine, ed.), pp. 73-94. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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Mahalski, P. A., Jones, R., and Maxwell, G. M. 1988. The value of cat ownership to elderly women living alone. International Journal of Agind and Human Development 27, 249-260.

McCabe, B. W., Baun, M. M., Speich, D., and Agrawal, S. 2002. Resident dog in the Alzheimer's special care unit. Western Journal of Nursing Research 24, 684-696.

Raina, P., Waltner-Toews, D., Bonnett, B., Woodward, C., and Abernathy, T. 1999. Influence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: An analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 47, 323-329.

Sanders, C. R. 2000. The impact of guide dogs on the identity of people with visual impairments. Anthrozoos 13, 131-139.

Staats, S. and Horner, K. 1999. Allocating time to people and pets: Correlates with income and well-being in a Midwest community sample. Journal of Psychology 133, 541-552.

Zasloff, R. L., and Kidd, A. H. 1994. Loneliness and pet ownership among single women. Psychological Reports 75, 747-752.

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