A Tail of Improving Quality of Life

A Tail of Improving Quality of Life

Arthritis can be a truly debilitating condition. Often hampering the mobility of patients, resulting in difficulty with everyday tasks such as walking, bending or carrying. Much work is being done to try combat these effects, with researchers seeking novel drug targets with better patient outcomes and fewer side effects. While this work is key in the fight against this disease there are other avenues that can assist to immediately improve the quality of life for these patients.

Many of us are aware of the good work done by the Guide Dog Association to aid those with visual impairment. However, service and therapy animals are not limited to this function. Many physicians have seen the benefit of recommending the use of a service animal to those with rheumatoid and other forms arthritis. Not only do these animals offer physical support but can encourage patients to move more as they aid with mobility.

Moving Up and On…

In order to assist, a service dog will be fitted with a specialised harness with a handle that can be held to improve balance and stability whilst moving. An additional benefit is that unlike a cane or a crutch, a service dog will sense when their owner is off balance and help accordingly. Organizations that train service dogs have found that patients are less likely to fall with a dog than with other forms of assistance.

Fatigue is common in arthritis patients as regular activities require greater effort, than for those who are without mobility challenges.  A gentle pull from or the ability to lean on a service animal can reduce the amount of energy exerted when completing these activities. Dogs can further diminish expended energy requirements as they are trained to pick up items off the ground, thus ensuring their owner does not need to bend over. Many tasks can be ably carried out by these service dogs, including carrying and retrieving items, helping their owner to dress and undress, opening and closing doors and can even raise the alarm and signal for help if it is required.

Patient been treated with the assistance of a trained dog

When I Needed a Hand I Found a Paw…

The process of obtaining a service animal will differ depending on the organisation from which it is acquired. Generally, an applicant will be required to fill in an application form. If a service animal is deemed appropriate, the next step is often a face to face interview. During this time a trainer will be better able to assess the needs of the individual, will explain the ways in which a service animal can assist and can answer any questions the candidate may have. A trainer will consider which animal may be a good fit in terms of assistance needed, as well as matching the personalities of dog and owner. Following which, there will be a period of supervised intensive training for the patient and their new dog. This will cover areas such as basic obedience, skills training and theoretical training of the legalities of what a service animal may and may not do and where they will be allowed to go in public spaces (this will differ according to country and state). Some organisations will also cover basic care and medical knowledge that an owner will need to properly look after their dog. In some countries there are formal standards to regulate the use of service dogs. For example, in Japan there are standards for nurturing high quality service dogs which stipulate an obligation to collaborate with medical organizations. Additionally, service dogs can be categorised as welfare equipment in order to assist in achieving independence for their owners. Standards exist worldwide, Assistance Dogs International (ADI) developed a comprehensive set of standards applicable to service dog use. It is key that when you are considering obtaining a service animal that you contact an organisation that has been accredited by the necessary institutions such as by the ADI. An owner and dog form a partnership trusting each other with their lives and safety, it is therefore necessary for everything in the process, including the training, to meet necessary criteria. Additionally, accredited organisations will be able to assist with rules and regulations that may be state specific. More information can be obtained from https://assistancedogsinternational.org. This site is a great jumping off point for anyone considering obtaining a service dog.

Building Emotional Momentum from Physical Interaction

Aside from the physical impact of diseases such as arthritis, an often-underappreciated effect is that which it has on the psychological and emotional wellbeing of a patient. Many patients with these conditions can be prone to experiencing loneliness and depression. Physical barriers such as reduced mobility can result in fewer interactions between patients and the outside world, some patients being unable to work or travel. Furthermore, an absence of understanding and empathy from those that lack information can lead to feelings of isolation. Here again is a way in which service dogs can be used – by offering companionship and helping to alleviate the mental burden associated with chronic illness. Much evidence exists to support the idea that patients have improvement in mood and social participation once using a service dog. Frequently, it may be a comorbid condition, such as depression which indicates that the use of a service animal may be beneficial. A study (Shintani et al. 2010) found that service dog owners scored higher than the general population in social functioning as well as emotional and mental health, demonstrating that the mental aspects of quality of life by the study participants were in fact higher than those achieved by the average person. This is truly indicative of the impact these animals can have. Disability due to RA and other conditions is associated with lower levels of self esteem and higher levels of depression, this study also found that service dogs improved these aspects to the point where the patients were doing better in these areas than those without disabilities. It is thought that the synergy achieved due to the multiple positive effects on dog owners due to their service dogs may be responsible for this phenomenon.  

Studies such as those mentioned above are significant as more needs to be done to fully understand the various roles and the impact that service dogs can have. Data supporting these findings will be key to encouraging wider acceptance for the use of service dogs, as well as for properly defining the role they play in a patient’s life. Although companionship from a dog is not new, their function as a form of assistive technology is a novel way to harness these benefits and improve the mental and physical functioning of patients living with conditions such as RA.

Although the advantages offered by having a service dog are abundant, it is important to note that these animals do require care and that ability to care for one’s service animal must be thoroughly considered before embarking on this path. That being said as with many things a small amount of effort can yield stupendous-long lasting benefits, and this is certainly true for the relationship between a patient and their service animal.

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Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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