Participants sought for study on family dogs and physical activity for kids with disabilities

Oregon State University researchers are recruiting children with disabilities and their family dogs for a research study that will test a new intervention to see if pairing the dog and the child can help the child become more physically active.

The project is led by CPHHS Assistant Professor Megan MacDonald  and College of Agricultural Sciences Assistant Professor Monique Udell. The researchers recently received a two-year, $375,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to support the project.

Children with disabilities spend less time participating in physical activity compared to their peers and are considered a health disparity group, meaning they generally face more health concerns than their peers. And physical activity tends to drop among all children around age 12. The goal of the study is to see if the partnership with the family dog leads to improvements in children’s physical activity levels, which in turn could lead to other health improvements.

“We need to find creative ways to engage kids in physical activity,” Megan says. “And beyond physical activity, animal companionship can have a significant impact on health and well-being.”

The new study builds on the researchers’ earlier work exploring how a family dog might serve as a partner to help a child with disabilities become more active. In a recent case study of one 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and his family’s dog, the researchers found the intervention program led to a wide range of improvements for the child, including physical activity as well as motor skills, quality of life and human-animal interactions. They also found that the dog’s behavior and performance on cognitive and physical tasks improved alongside the child’s.

The new intervention is aimed at children with disabilities who are 10 to 16 years old and have a family dog that also could participate in the study. The children will learn how to train their dog in new behaviors with the “Do As I Do” method, which uses positive reinforcement. “Do As I Do” is similar to the game “Simon Says,” in which the dog follows the lead of the child.

“It’s really about the child and the dog being active together as a team,” Megan says. “The program also could help the relationship between the child and the dog grow.”

Families will come to OSU for one hour daily for two weeks during the study, which is expected to begin later this summer. There is some flexibility to the schedule depending on families’ needs. The children also will have homework such as walking the dog each day at home. Not all families selected for the study will participate in the “Do as I Do” training this year but all families will have a chance to participate in the training over the course of the two-year study.

“Participating children need to be able to follow basic instructions but beyond that, we want to be as inclusive as possible,” Megan says. “Parents who have questions about whether their child and their pet are a good fit for the study should feel free to give me a call so we can discuss their individual needs.”

Families interested in learning more about the study or participating in it should contact Megan at 541-737-3273 or Megan.MacDonald@oregonstate.edu.