Unleashing friendships

Unleashing friendships – companion dogs prompt others to act more friendly to disabled

Marjory Roberts

Unleashing Friendship

Dogs have long made wonderful assistants and companions for disabled people, but there appears to be an added benefit to having an animal around. Animal behaviorist Lynette A. Hart and colleagues found that companion dogs may prompt others to act more friendly and openly toward the disabled.

Hart and coworkers interviewed 19 paraplegic and quadriplegic owners, comparing them with 9 similarly disabled people who did not own dogs. Both groups estimated the number of people who approached them “in a friendly way during a typical trip downtown.”

The dogs made a big difference, the researchers reported in Anthrozoos (Vol. 1, pp. 41-44). Dog owners noted, on average, eight amiable approaches when they went out, while those without dogs recalled only one friendly encounter.

To get a better idea of just how strangers respond when a dog accompanies a disabled person, Hart and another team observed 20 people in wheelchairs at a shopping mall, half of whom had dogs with them. The researchers found that people were almost five times more likely to talk to dog owners and about three times more likely to smile at them. Two subsequent studies of children in wheelchairs indicated that companion dogs seem to create a “social bridge” for their disabled owners.

“The dog gives a little boost to these people,” Hart, of the University of California, Davis, explains. “He’s a portable social support system.” Emotional support, she points out, has also been shown to help surgical and heart patients recover more quickly, and Hart suggests that the “social benefits provided by the dog” may have a similar effect on disabled people.

Photo: Helping the disabled: Dogs prompt more friendly encounters with others.

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