Study Finds Dogs Create Connections for People in Supported Housing

Owner walking with Golden Retriever dog together in park
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We all know that dogs are good for us in a plethora of ways. They cheer us up when we're down. They help people with disabilities live fuller lives. There are even some studies that suggest that having dogs makes us healthier and likely to live longer.

According to new research, dogs might also have measurable benefits for people with intellectual disabilities who live in supported housing. Because people with intellectual disabilities who live in supported housing often have limited social interactions (something that humans, as social animals, all need), the researchers behind the study theorized that a dog-walking program could help these individuals increase their social interactions in the community.

And, spoiler alert, it looks like they were right.

Walking the dog in urban environment
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The results of the study, designed by Dr. Emma Bould and colleagues at La Trobe University, was published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research. For the study, Bould and her team recruited 16 volunteers with intellectual disabilities to take part in the study. The participants were divided into two groups of matched pair, with the members of each pair being equivalent on levels of disability and whether or not they had Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or a social impairment.

To test the theory, researchers had both groups embark on 14 one-hour outings into the community (with the help of a handler) to do something fun, like visiting a café, shopping, or taking a walk in the park. Because the effect of dogs on the trip was being tested, of course, only one group was accompanied by a four-legged friend; the other wasn't.

After the initial 14 outings, the group who didn't have the dog with them then went on another five one-hour outings with a dog (given the situation, researchers didn't want to take the dog away from the group who had gotten used to its company, even in the name of science). The results were clear: The dog definitely increased the participants' social interactions in the community.

Walking French Bulldog in the evening, England
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"When participants went out with a dog, they had significantly more encounters of a different and more convivial nature compared with going out without a dog," the researchers explained.
"The presence of a dog appeared to offer protection against negative factors, and to facilitate fleeting and convivial encounters, as well as giving participants greater confidence to engage in social exchanges, and be more quickly recognized in community places."

When groups had a dog with them, they averaged 2.6 interactions per outing compared to 1.2 for groups without a dog. That means that people in the community were more than twice as likely to interact with the people with intellectual disabilities if a dog was present. What's more, the interactions the participants had were more positive when a dog was around, too.

"People are friendlier when you have a dog," one of the participants said. "I have seen people look and smile."

More research is needed to confirm these preliminary results, but the early data is clear: Dogs are helpful for people with intellectual disabilities, especially those living in supported housing.