Introduction: Social support (SS) is an important determinant of senior health. Dogs are an underutilized modality for seniors’ SS promotion, and dog visitation programs are emerging to address this underutilization. Dogs impact SS in two ways according to the Social Support Theory, as an agent of SS (direct) or as a facilitator of SS (indirect).
Purpose: To replicate naturalistic interventions to determine whether visiting dog programs positively impact SS, whether there are differences between individual and group conditions, and whether differences are primarily due to direct or indirect effects of dog visiting programs.
Methodology: An exploratory quasi-experimental comparative intervention study design, with mixed methods, was utilized. The six-week intervention involved participants’ (n=8) exposure to a dog and its handler to measure the influence on participants’ perceived SS. Two conditions, group and individual, were compared to explore differences in visiting dog programs. Quantitative measurements of social support were taken at baseline, immediately post intervention, and at six weeks post intervention. Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted throughout the intervention along with field notes. Six weeks following the intervention a focus group was held to determine longer-term effects. Quantitative data were analyzed using mixed measures ANOVA and qualitative data were analyzed using interpretive description.
Results: Mixed measures ANOVA were not significantly different between conditions, over time, or over time between conditions. The main effect in the individual condition was indirect, that is, facilitation of interaction between participant and handler. The group condition formed the primary bond with the visiting dog during the intervention (direct), however the group was able to maintain a connection because of the program six weeks post intervention (indirect). Reminiscence emerged as an important component of the visitation program.
Conclusion: The visiting dog program produced positive influence on participants. The lasting impact of the program was the impression left by the relationship built between participants and the visiting dog. Future studies should incorporate reminiscence into the research design to further investigate its influence.