Supporting Support Dogs: Mitigating Risk From Interactions With Kids
There are numerous studies into the well-being and quality of life of children supported by so-called ‘assistance’ dogs, ‘therapy’ dogs, and companion dogs. However, despite the heightened stimuli present in such environments, the experiences of the dogs themselves during these interactions with children remains an overlooked area of research. It is acknowledged as an important area by working dog literature, however, most existing research is based on dogs engaged in service with adults, not children. That children’s behavior can be unpredictable is a significant risk factor to both dogs and children in these exchanges. The reviewers here aimed to highlight the need to consider a more mutually beneficial relationship for dogs working with children, ultimately protecting and improving the experience of all concerned.
From a possible 205 articles, only five were identified as relevant by the researchers, spanning ten years from 2008-2018. Each used varying ways of measuring the hard-to-define ‘quality of life,’ as well as different research design and data collection methods, making comparisons difficult. Of the papers identified, one focused on companion dogs, while the remaining four were about dogs trained for assistant service. The number of dogs involved in each study was small (between one and 36), and most were large breeds aged between six months and 13 years of age. The same was found for the children represented across the research: between 11 and 60 children per study, aged between three and 17 years of age. In four of the five settings, children had identified additional support needs and in two, the dogs were part of a short, externally structured and controlled therapeutic intervention rather than living full-time with the family.
Quality of life effects can be psychological, physical, or social and it’s these that the researchers chose to focus on, noting observations within the studies that would serve as evidence of one or more of these factors. Likewise, the child-dog interactions themselves fell into one of three categories:
- Unprovoked attention from child to dog (e.g. rough contact)
- How predictable the setting was for the dog (e.g. routine, rest)
- Games the child chose to play with the dog (e.g. loudness, dressing up)
In four out of five studies, psychological stress was displayed, and in two of those, high stress was evident. Where dogs lived with children full-time, physical ailments linked to acute, chronic stress were reported. Three studies made reference to social effects, and in two of those, attachment to (and subsequent separation anxiety from) an adult rather than child was clear, particularly when stressors were being created by children in the dog’s environment. Dog stress was evident in all five studies, with behavioral indicators more common than physical. In the two papers collecting physiological data, little change to cortisol levels or heart rate was noted despite stress behaviors, leading the authors to conclude that physiology alone may not be a reliable indicator of a given dog’s quality of life.
The researchers concluded that the amount of time the dog and child were together was a problem, with stress-related physical health problems very clear in the two full-time situations, where constant adult moderation of activity was incredibly difficult. They also noted that the children in both of these settings were diagnosed with autism, and so that condition and its associated and often complex social difficulties may have played a part in the nature of these child-dog exchanges.
The ethics of the use of animals in these settings was not considered here, but this scoping review at highlights the nature and effects of the most acute stressors to dogs in these environments. The researchers identified the need for further research into tension triggers as well as ways to provide valuable knowledge of canine stress behaviours to guardians of both the children and dogs. Understanding dog stress is crucial in such interactions to ensure more effective interventions, more positive outcomes, and a better quality of life for dogs.