The project objective is to assess the long term impact of pet dogs on families with a child with autism using a range of validated scales which had been completed by these families two-to-three years previously. In particular, we are interested to know whether the improvements in parental stress, family normalcy and child anxiety that were observed in the original study are maintained in this follow-up study in the dog-owing group (intervention group), versus any change in the non-dog owning group (control group).
This 2.5 year follow-up investigation of family functioning and parental stress in families who acquired a pet dog (Intervention group; n = 22) and in a Control group who did not acquire a pet dog during this time (n = 15) demonstrates clear benefits from pet dog ownership in the lives of families living with a child with autism, particularly in terms of improving family functioning. Families in the intervention group showed significantly reduced family difficulties over time in comparison to the control group. Both groups showed significant reductions in parenting stress in terms of perceptions of total stress, parent distress and difficult child over the study period. No significant differences were observed between the groups but stress reductions were more evident in the intervention group, with 20% of parents moving from clinically high to clinically normal stress levels. No clinically relevant reductions were observed in the control group. Additionally, significant reductions were only observed in the intervention group in the domain of parent-child dysfunctional interactions. Significant relationships were observed between parent attachment to the dog and parenting stress (perceptions of difficult child, and dysfunction parent child interactions). Overall, the results illustrate that dog ownership is associated with enduring improvements to family functioning and may also help to all alleviate domains of parenting stress possibly especially if associated with parent-child dysfunctional interactions.