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Living with animal assistance, or how the presence of a guide dog redefines the relationship of the visually impaired with other members of the family

Yasmine Debarge

Research Framework: The situation of disability entails one or more forms of dependency of the disabled person vis-à-vis his entourage or professionals. Caregivers, family members, are then solicited in a more or less recurrent way to accompany the person in activities that cannot be done alone. Facilitated by « care » or « caring for others » practices, special ties, different from ordinary relationships, are formed as a result, particularly with parents. This type of relationship based on dependency questions Western family models that tend to favour the elective links between individuals, responding to a movement of autonomization of individuals and a priority set on affection. The disabled person is then caught between two opposing forces: the need to rely on the help of relatives and / or external persons or institutions and the desire to be more autonomous or as autonomous as a non-disabled person. It is precisely between these two forces that animal assistance intervenes, and more precisely the guide dog. As a living being, the guide dog will provide daily support to his handler who will allow him to take on a different role vis-à-vis other members of the family.

Objectives: The objective of this exploratory survey is to identify the avenues of research around this theme of animal assistance. Indeed, the gain of autonomy with respect to the family and the relief that this may represent for third-party caregivers transform intra-family relations initially modified by disability. At the same time, a relationship of affection is created with the animal which gives the dog a special place within the family. The dog does not have a status of simple pets and is not an ordinary care worker either. It is therefore necessary to understand the consequences of animal assistance on the way in which the disabled person occupies his / her roles within the family and to clarify the transformations of the place of the dog in contemporary Western societies based on the status of the guide dog within the handler family.

Methodology: The National Association of Guide Dog Handlers in France (French acronym ANMCGA) made contact with some of its most active members to inform them of this investigation. At the request of the interviewer and in order to obtain the most heterogeneous sample possible, the ANMCGA selected the respondents according to criteria of sex, age and family situation. Eleven semi-structured interviews of the duration of a half-hour to one hour were conducted with guide dog handlers. Sequences of these interviews, in particular the description of particular events, were analyzed.

Results: It is shown how the guide dog supports his handler in the exercise of his / her roles of son / daughter, spouse, mother / father, grandmother / grandfather, especially on the issues of moving around. It is also described how relatives and non-relatives welcome animal assistance and whether or not the dog is included in the functioning of the family. Indeed, thanks to the dog, the handler can move without help and perform all kinds of activities that he could not do alone. The caregivers no longer have to adopt the same vigilance towards the visually impaired person.

Conclusion: This exploratory study concludes that the dog has a supporting role in the family by helping the handler fulfill the roles of son / daughter (of an elderly parent), spouse, mother / father, grandmother / grandfather … In our society, all the different phases of life require a certain autonomy and the corresponding roles require family links of solidarity which are reconfigured according to the autonomy of each one. Animal assistance allows the visually impaired person to perform activities that would have been more difficult to achieve without the dog. In addition, animal assistance relieves relatives of a concern that in some cases can have an impact on relational dynamics. The constant presence of dogs with their handler inserts them completely into all family activities, unlike other dogs or pets that cannot access all the places in which members of the family are likely to evolve. Thus, the work of care performed by the dog generates a debt toward him, especially on the part of the visually impaired person who considers that the animal must be taken care of when difficulties are encountered but also frequently by extension on the part of the visually impaired person relatives.

Contribution: To our knowledge, no similar study has been done previously.