HABIC-funded researchers address grief among service dog handlers upon the loss of their relationship

When a service dog dies or retires, the loss has a huge impact on handlers who often rely on their dogs to live independently. CSU researchers explored how to support handlers prior to their loss and afterwards as they navigate the grieving process and transition to the next phase of their lives.

Canine Companions service dog, a yellow labrador, holds a set of keys in its mouth mear the hand of a person in a wheelchair

Combined with existing barriers faced by individuals experiencing different health issues and abilities, the loss of a service animal can negatively impact their overall well-being, says Professor Lori Kogan of Colorado State University’s Department of Clinical Sciences, in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“The relationship between the handler and service dog is unique, in that the bond, and that reliance on another entity, makes it different than the relationship between a pet and an owner,” said Kogan, noting how service animal handlers experience grief and loss both when an animal passes away, and when an animal needs to retire and must be returned to the service dog organization.

Kogan partnered with Assistant Professor Jen Currin-McCulloch of CSU’s School of Social Work, as well as research team members Cori Bussolari, Wendy Packman, and Phyllis Erdman. “Grief and loss in this population immensely impacts their quality of life and mental health,” said Currin-McCulloch. “Service dog partners often experience disenfranchised grief due to limited social support networks who truly understand the complexity of their grief and loss.”

The research, funded through the Human-Animal Bond in Colorado – HABIC center in the School, aims to improve support from service dog organizations and veterinarians for individuals experiencing these types of loss.

“The grant funding is provided to help researchers focus on building the science related to human-animal interaction (HAI),” said HABIC Director Helen Holmquist-Johnson, “to better understand the impacts of HAI on both human health, mental health and the human-animal bond.”

Advocating for service dog handlers facing loss of their animal

At the outset of their work, Kogan and Currin-McCulloch realized an important distinction about the grief experienced by service dog handlers. “We immediately delineated between losing through death versus losing through retirement,” said Kogan.

After an initial survey, follow-up interviews allowed the research team to better understand service dog handlers’ experiences surrounding their loss.

“We asked participants, what is your day-to-day life? What is this grief like? What are your interactions with friends and family? Do you feel supported in this?” said Currin-McCulloch. “We found that what was most impacted was their independence and their socialization.”

“There’s a utilitarian aspect of this relationship that is a really critical piece to understand,” said Kogan. “It’s not only do I love this dog, but it’s the loss of freedom. It’s the loss of their independence that adds another layer. Can they even go out? Can they run errands? Can they go to work?”

A service animal can be “part of their process to interact with the world,” added Currin-McCulloch. “Their identity can be wrapped in the life that their dog can provide for them.”

In addition, service dog handlers often face the need for retiring an animal that can create “anticipatory grief.” Handlers may of course need to retire an animal for reasons such as the animal’s age, but also they may be faced with a difficult choice due to challenges in caring for the animal.

“Many of the handlers would keep their retired dogs, but many of them could not. In terms of psycho-social support, there’s less support for them and their disenfranchised grieving process,” said Currin-McCulloch. “No one truly understood, unless they were another service dog handler.”

Using research to support well-being for service dog handlers

The researchers worked with Canine Companions, a service dog provider based in California, to support the organization’s existing work and provide education and advocacy for handlers around these unique aspects of a relationship with a service dog.

Researchers from Colorado State University partnered with a production team on a video project to enhance understanding of the impacts service dog handlers face upon the loss of their animal. 

The research team also targeted veterinarians with their findings, to help them better understand the relationships service dog handlers have with their animals, and the significance of these losses.

Public awareness about how to best support individuals experiencing the loss of a service animal can also make a difference. “So to be there to listen, to not assume any aspect of [your] grief is similar,” said Currin-McCulloch.

To offer support, Currin-McCulloch encourages people to think about how to respond to handlers when the service dog is no longer there, “like when they returned to work or they went out to eat for the first time without their dog…it’s how we support this grief process,” Currin-McCulloch said.

“HABIC is proud to support this research,” said Holmquist-Johnson, “because the distinct differences inherent in relationships between service animals and their handlers, whether for physical, mental, or emotional support, is valuable and worth understanding to promote healthier and more inclusive communities.”

habic logoAbout Human-Animal Bond in Colorado

Founded in 1993, Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) is a center in the School of Social Work, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. HABIC’s mission is to improve the quality of life for people of all ages through the therapeutic benefits of companion animals, with particular focus in the areas of community outreach, teaching, and research.