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How Do Assistance Dogs Help Their Handlers to Live Their Best Possible Lives?

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posted on 2023-01-19, 11:14 authored by Gravrok, Jennifer
Submission note: Submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the School of Psychology and Public Health, College of Science, Health, and Engineering, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia.

Thesis with publications.

Assistance dogs (AD) are highly trained to ameliorate effects of their handler’s specific disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. ADs are considered to provide numerous physical, psychological and social benefits to their handler that positively affect their life. However, they also present challenges, and are costly to train. Overall, these benefits and challenges remain poorly understood. This thesis aims to increase understanding of how AD’s assist their handlers to live their best possible life, focussing on the experiences of first-time handlers. The Thriving Through Relationships theory of social support is used to frame handlers’ perceptions of the support provided by ADs. The research employed a mixed-methods approach in order to attain a holistic understanding of handlers’ experiences. An initial questionnaire, informed by the Thriving Through Relationships theory, demonstrated that handlers did perceive that their AD assisted them to thrive. To determine more precisely how ADs achieve this outcome, eight longitudinal case studies were then undertaken, drawing on the experiences of first-time handlers and their care networks. The findings corroborated the benefits that have been reported previously and enhanced understanding of the prominent challenges. The information reported in this thesis will enable AD organizations to better prepare handlers for working with an AD and increase best practice initiatives in this emerging field.

This thesis was a recipient of the Nancy Millis Award for theses of exceptional merit.


Center or Department

College of Science, Health and Engineering. School of Psychology and Public Health.

Thesis type

  • Ph. D.

Awarding institution

La Trobe University

Year Awarded


Rights Statement

This thesis contains third party copyright material which has been reproduced here with permission. Any further use requires permission of the copyright owner. The thesis author retains all proprietary rights (such as copyright and patent rights) over all other content of this thesis, and has granted La Trobe University permission to reproduce and communicate this version of the thesis. The author has declared that any third party copyright material contained within the thesis made available here is reproduced and communicated with permission. If you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact us with the details.

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