Researchers assess benefits of assistance dogs for children with physical disabilities

Posted on: 07 October 2022

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin and The Gait Laboratory at the Central Remedial Clinic have teamed up with national charity Dogs for Disabled, based in Cork – and some of their furry friends – to measure the impact of gait training with a dog on walking quality, activity levels and health-related quality of life in ten children with impaired walking ability.

Children with physical impairments often participate in significantly lower levels of habitual physical activity than their peers, below recommended guidelines, which state that therapies to improve function, participation and quality of life in children with additional needs should be fun, involve family, encourage fitness, improve function and develop future goals.  

The research team, working with specially trained assistance dogs provided by Dogs for the Disabled, are using 3D gait analysis, physical activity monitors and quality of life measurement tools to measure the effect of the assistance dog on the gait pattern, daily physical activity levels and family perception of the benefits to their child.

Two assistance dogs with their handler. 

Two assistance dogs from Co. Cork charity Dogs for Disabled with their handler.

Ciaran Simms, Professor in Trinity’s School of Engineering, said:

“This is the first study of its kind and we are excited to see what the findings are. The data we collect will show the effect of the dog on the gait kinematic profile and gait parameters of each child, and we will also consider the impact the dog  will have on each child’s daily walking levels and the overall effect of their introduction.” 

Heather Curtin, Senior Physiotherapist and PhD candidate in the School of Engineering, added: 

“While we haven’t gathered all the data we need at this stage, the early indications from our gait analysis work suggest the children are seeing some improvements in their walking patterns following the introduction of a trained mobility assistance dog.

“Physical activity levels in children with walking impairments are often lower than their peers, and the introduction of a trained dog may help their overall quality of life by improving their walking ability, which can make it easier to interact and play with their friends. As you might expect, the children participating in this study are also thoroughly enjoying their time with their new furry friends.”

A child walking while having their gait analysed. 

A child walking in the Central Remedial Clinic, which is one of the partners in this study. 

The multidisciplinary team also includes Professor Michelle Spirtos, Professor Richard Reilly and Dr Damien Kiernan. 

The research team will continue to gather and analyse data in the coming months as well as collating data from qualitative interviews with families to assess their perception on the overall impact the mobility assistance dogs have had on their lives. They will report their results in due course.

Jennifer Dowler, CEO & Founder of Dogs for the Disabled, said: 

“We have been training this unique type of assistance dog to help children with balance issues to walk for over 15 years now and have seen with our own eyes the impact our dogs have had on the children we’ve worked with, many of whom are now young adults today and no longer require their assistance dog. 

“However, it’s equally important for our organisation to justify the life changing donations we receive from the public and to ensure we are investing our time, energy and funds into training assistance dogs that are making a genuine and measurable difference to the lives of the children we work with. In addition, the opportunity to work so closely with the prestigious Trinity College Dublin and the highly respected Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) on this research is invaluable to us and enables us to gather vital information that will only enhance our services to the children we strive to help.”

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