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Guide dogs – health support on four paws?

25.07.2019: Eye substitutes, assistants in everyday life, life companions: without any doubt, guide dogs offer support and assist visually impaired and blind people in their everyday lives. But do guide dogs really increase the quality of life of their owners? Lisa Maria Glenk from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna tried to answer these questions in a recently published scientific study – and the study’s findings have been surprising.   

An emerging body of science has linked dog ownership with a better quality of life in their owners. Specifically trained dogs, such as companion dogs or guide dogs for the blind, have particularly positive effects on human health. Until now there has, however, been only limited information on the potential health benefits of guide dog ownership in blind people. Guide dogs may not only support blind people in their independency, but also facilitate social relationships and improve their owners’ overall health. Previous studies have even shown that dog owners required less health-care benefits, allowing for savings in national health expenditure. 

Reasons enough for Lisa Maria Glenk from the Messerli Research Institute – an interuniversity institution of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Medical University Vienna and the University of Vienna dedicated to human-animal interaction science – and her research team to take a closer look at the facts. The study was conducted with a group of blind Austrians with and without guide dogs (sample: 36 persons) to examine their quality of life, annually incurred medical costs and their attitude towards the relationship to a guide dog.

Surprising findings and differences in detail

Surprisingly, the results of the standardised questionnaire did not show any significant differences in quality of life. When taking a closer look, however, the study outcomes indicate differences between the groups: guide dog owners were more likely to regard their guide dog as a family member and to believe that guide dogs can increase their independency and have a positive effect on their health. Lower annual medical costs in guide dog owners were reported on a non-significant level, as only few people provided the required information.

Benefits unclear, further research required

Study leader Lisa Maria Glenk explains, “The study findings suggest that, compared to non-dog owners, blind people who own guide dogs are more likely to believe that a guide dog may have positive effects on their health, increase their independency and facilitate social relationships to a certain degree. Further studies are, however, necessary to identify any causal effects. Such research would be of great value for visually impaired people and their families, insurance companies and state institutions.

Follow-up studies with larger samples would allow for a better assessment of the benefits of guide dogs and potential cost savings.” Further research into this topic would also be desirable as the number of people with severe visual impairments and associated costs are clearly increasing.

The article “Perceptions on health benefits of guide dog ownership in an Austrian population of blind people with and without a guide dog” by Lisa Maria Glenk, Lucie Přibylová, Birgit Ursula Stetina, Sami Demirel and Karl Weissenbacher was published in “Animals“.