Experiences of People with Multiple Sclerosis and Their Use of Assistance Dogs: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

O'Connor, Gráinne Ann (2021). Experiences of People with Multiple Sclerosis and Their Use of Assistance Dogs: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00012908


In this thesis, findings are reported from a qualitative study of eleven people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) who between them have used nineteen assistance dogs for more than two decades.

The first recorded use of dogs specifically trained to help people living with physical impairments undertake practical tasks aimed at increasing their independence and quality of life was in North America in 1975. In recent decades, the use of such dogs by people living with a wide range of physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities and mental illness has rapidly expanded in many countries of the global north. Research from the field of human-animal interactions and disability studies raises issues concerning both the quality and quantity of evidence in this area. Recently, this has led researchers to urge caution regarding the benefits and challenges of assistance dog use by those living with disabilities. In this study, participants were recruited from two of the four accredited charities who train assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities across the United Kingdom (UK). Single in-depth, semi-structured interviews were undertaken. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was applied to the data resulting in three super-ordinate themes: VISIBILITY, (UN)CERTAINTY and IDENTITY.

Key findings were that the use of an assistance dog was perceived to transform participants’ self-identity to one which was shared with their dog. Experiences of interactions between participants and society in which their assistance dog served to misdirect negative public gaze away from visible impairment were understood to amplify shared human-ness and minimise difference. This interspecies relationship was however, revealed to be vulnerable to the uncertainties of ageing (human and canine) intertwined with the unpredictability of living with a degenerative condition. The findings and conclusions offered in this thesis enhance and inform both critical disability studies and human-animal interaction studies through its exploration of new understandings of identity.

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