Dogs help humans with disabilities socialize with others, researchers find

Having a dog may be one way to curb lonelieness.

Photo credit: JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE/AFP/Getty Images
  • A pilot study has found that dogs help socialize those with intellectual disabilities at Australian group homes.
  • Previous research finds that pets helps those who use wheelchairs "feel more secure and confident in public."
  • People are far more likely to interact with someone with an intellectual disability if they were walking with a dog.


There are an estimated 5,000 people with a range of intellectual disabilities living in 900 places of "shared accommodation" with 24-hour staff support in Victoria, Australia. A pilot study from the Living with Disability Research Centre, in Melbourne, has found that providing regular access to dogs appears to help socialize those living with certain disabilities.

This is important because of already existing literature that says people who live in supported accommodation "have relatively poor outcomes on the quality of life" in terms of social inclusion and interpersonal relationship. Existing literature also notes that, "In an Australian survey, 58 percent of pet owners indicated they had got to know people and made friends through having pets."


But not everyone has the time and resources to devote to owning a dog, so the researchers observed a visiting dog walking program, which was run in collaboration with two qualified and experienced dog handlers from a national non-profit organization. Participants in the study visited cafés, shops, the local park, and made their way around the community. They'd typically pursue the same activity each outing, sometimes varying the location.

Average (and standard deviations) number of encounters each outing for participants in Group 1 (with a dog) and Group 2 (without a dog; with a dog).

Image source: Living with Disability Research Centre

The results strongly suggest that, when dogs are present, people have more social encounters. It's a finding that's emphasized all the more by the subjective observations of the animal handlers:

"I am noticing an interesting pattern in the outings where there is no dog present. Only shop attendants initiate conversation. Some say 'Hello' to me, but they try not to look at the person with the disability."

This stands in stark contrast with how someone with an intellectual disability is treated if they do have a dog, say the handlers. What does this augur, then? It suggests there are social benefits to providing a dog to those with intellectual disabilities. On top of this, the findings also partially indict those who would not have interacted with someone with an intellectual disability were it not for the dog.

If loneliness has a degree of impact on our health, then it's incumbent on us to try and take steps to socialize the most vulnerable.

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