Lena Lidfors. Photo: Vanja Sandgren/SLU

Social service dog activities increases the quality of life

Lena Lidfors is Professor of Ethology at the Department of Animal Environment and Health, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Skara. In recent years, her interest has also turned to the interaction between animals and humans, resulting in a report on social service dogs in schools, health and social care.

“I’m extremely proud of the report “Social service dogs – use, legislation and welfare in the interaction between dogs and humans”, which has been published by the SLU Future One Health platform. Apparently, it’s the report that has been downloaded and read the most number of times.”

Lena believes this is due to society’s great interest in dogs in general.

“People are also intrigued by just how helpful dogs can be to people. The number of people who got dogs during the pandemic was quite something.”

Back in 2016, when Lena organised a conference on “Green Care” in Skara, she met Sara Karlberg, who has built up the Swedish Therapy Dog School.

“Sara and I have been working together since then. She has a wealth of expertise in training dog handlers and in testing dogs’ suitability to work as social service dogs.”

School dogs project

Sara has been involved in Lena’s latest project on school dogs, which is being funded by Agria and the Swedish Kennel Club. The aim of the project is to investigate how school dogs can help pupils with problematic absence from school to return to school and achieve learning goals. Maria Andersson, who worked as a school director, is also involved in the project. The project kicked off in 2022 and runs until 2024.

“Long-term truancy, where children have completely stopped going to school, is on the rise. By enlisting the help of dog teams that come into pupils’ homes, get them out of bed and out the house, you can gradually entice them back to school.”

Lena believes that any kind of exclusion of young people can cost society dearly. By successfully getting pupils to complete their schooling, their chances of getting a job increase. It can be a win-win situation for society and the individual, but more research is needed on this. Inna Feldman, associate professor of health economics at Uppsala University, is therefore also involved in the project.

Interest in using school dogs is considerable, but brings with it some challenges and problems.

“We’ve had four schools using school dogs so far. We’ll be starting with five new schools in the spring and more schools will be added by the autumn. The shortage of dog teams has been a challenge in some local authorities where there is an interest in using school dogs. In the project I have now, we are very careful to ensure that only individual students get to meet the dog. The pupil and the dog are allowed to be in a separate room with access to an exterior door", says Lena

The importance of training and guidelines

Lena says it’s extremely important for the dog and the dog handler to be trained. One of the things you learn is always to do a risk assessment when you are going into a new environment, whether it’s a school or a nursing home. Then you can decide where the dog is allowed to go, or not as the case may be.

“Today, there are no guidelines setting out what the training should cover or laying down requirements for social service dog permits.”

Lena also explains that there are no official guidelines on the requirements to be met by dog teams – either during training or once they are fully trained.

“Clearer responsibility at national level is required, as using animals as well as nature and farms to help people who have different needs is a completely new sector.”

There are many countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and the United States, which have done more in this area, Lena says.

“In Norway, three ministries have joined forces to invest in and develop guidelines on how we can use animals and nature on e.g. private farms to help people.”

According to Lena, national investment is lacking because this is not a priority area in Sweden and because the regions are given the freedom to invest in what they want, which creates fragmentation.

The role of dogs in our health

Lena is hopeful about the future and can see that acceptance of dogs and their importance for many is increasing.

“I don’t think it’s going to decrease, especially when there’s research showing that dogs play an important role in physical and mental health. They help us in everything from getting more exercise and feeling less alone, to becoming calmer and even living longer.”

Next on the agenda is a seminar organised by SLU Holding about the benefits that social service dogs can bring to society.

“We are hoping that the seminar will result in a digital guide for the procurement of social service dogs as there is no such support today.”

For Lena, the dream going forward is for the school dog project to have a positive ripple effect, with follow-up studies and research. She hopes to attract a doctoral candidate in this area.

“I would also like to use research to evaluate what happens when you use horses with pupils who are problematically absent from school. At Skövde riding school, for example, two support staff take in pupils with problematic school attendance or absenteeism, who get to sit on horseback for the first time and learn to lower their shoulders, breathe, take it easy and reflect.”


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