Pawsitivity Service Dogs


Complete text of the independent, third-party impact evaluation of Pawsitivity Service Dogs.

Impact Evaluation

Your donation has a proven life-changing impact in the lives of veterans and families. You can read how on this page, which has the text and pictures of the independent Impact Evaluation, or you can go straight to the stories.

 Did you know?

  • An Impact Evaluation is considered the "gold standard" for donors who want proof that donations will be used wisely and effectively.
  • Pawsitivity is one of the few nonprofits to have its outcomes assessed with an independent third-party Impact Evaluation.


Impact Evaluation

December 2019

The author of this report. Al Onkka is a principal consultant at Aurora Consulting, a Minnesota-based firm serving nonprofits. He works at the leadership level to help nonprofits plan for the future and evaluate their impact. Al has worked in the field of evaluation, promoting data-based decision-making and organizational learning, since 2009.

Aurora Consulting. 1229 Tyler St.NE, Suite 285, Minneapolis, MN 55413. Note: PDF download is available here.


Pawsitivity Service Dogs is a small Minnesota-based non-profit with a big impact on the people it serves. Pawsitivity trains rescue dogs as service animals for adults and children with disabilities. Pawsitivity has a highly individualized approach that matches unique animals with unique people to build a powerful partnership.

This evaluation examines the impact that Pawsitivity service dogs have on the people they serve. As you will see, the impact was substantial and often life-changing.

People with disabilities made important progress with the help of their service dog.

- People were supported and motivated by the caring companionship of their service dog.

- People improved their emotional regulation in the moment and over time.

- People gained the confidence, independence, and self-esteem to live how they wished.

Caregivers and families experienced ripple effects from having the service dog.

- Caregivers gained independence.

- Families’ dynamics improved.

Aurora Consulting is a full-service evaluation firm. Our role as independent evaluator is to accurately portray the impact of a Pawsitivity service dog from the perspective of the individuals and families who received one. We used a rigorous qualitative evaluation method to describe the results in this report.

We invited a representative from every available family that had received a service dog from Pawsitivity in the past eight years to participate in the evaluation. Ten out of these 14 people participated in a 45-minute phone interview. We interviewed six mothers of boys with autism along with other disabilities or health concerns (aged 4-11 when they received a service dog), three adults with disabilities, and one caregiver of an adult with a disability. We also interviewed a special education teacher who uses a Pawsitivity trained therapy dog in her classroom. Her situation was unique, but many of her responses were similar to the families’.


To identify the intended outcomes of a Pawsitivity service dog, Aurora interviewed staff and reviewed logic models and theories of change. We identified four areas of impact to explore:

  • Direct impacts on the individual with a disability.
  • Direct impacts on the caregiver’s wellbeing and effectiveness.
  • Results of these impacts on family and home life.
  • Results of these impacts on public and social life.

We also examined the qualities of Pawsitivity as an organization that were helpful or challenging for the people who received service dogs.

At the time of this report, Pawsitivity has placed service dogs with 23 families or individuals since 2012. We invited 14 recipients to participate in this evaluation, excluding recipients who were unavailable due to death or poor health or whose service dog was deceased. Ten of the fourteen people we invited participated in this study.

We wrote an open-ended interview and used it to talk to the adults who received a service dog and the caregivers who handled a service dog for their child. We audio-recorded and transcribed the interviews. We did a qualitative analysis of the transcriptions looking for common themes or important outliers.

Throughout this report, we provide interview quotes to illustrate each theme. The quotes come from the interview recordings and have been lightly edited to improve readability. Aurora conducts confidential interviews and does not identify speakers. 


Pawsitivity Service Dogs is a small Minnesota-based non-profit with a big impact on the people it serves. Pawsitivity trains rescue dogs as service animals for adults and children with disabilities. Pawsitivity has a highly individualized approach that matches unique animals with unique people to build a powerful partnership.

This evaluation examines the impact that Pawsitivity service dogs have on the people they serve. As you will see, the impact was substantial and often life-changing.


People everywhere believe that dogs have a special bond with their humans. The people who received Pawsitivity service dogs are no different. Most of the families and individuals described how their service dog made a difference in their lives by simply being there, physically and emotionally, when they needed them.

“Having a service dog’s unconditional love - a bond that never goes or redirects or gets mad at you – is huge.”

Some people interviewed for this study remarked that they sought out a service dog because they believed in the benefits of having an animal in the house but knew an untrained pet would not work. The training that Pawsitivity gives to both their service dogs and handlers prepare them to be successful companions.

“Our service dog is the best tool we’ve ever had.”

Typically, we think of a service animal as caring for their human. But, taking care of an animal was a rewarding activity for many of the individuals. For adults and children alike, the responsibility of caring for their service dog could give their day purpose and structure.

“I am most proud of the relationship that my son has with his dog. The affection and sense of responsibility that he has. It says a lot about his Inner life. We can get glimpses of his feelings and his thoughts by how they interact. That is super valuable to me.”

For the children with autism, practicing and displaying empathy for another being helped them progress developmentally. Multiple parents appreciated that their child was showing an emotional connection and developing a relationship with someone other than a parent.

“When my other child is having a bad day, my son will let his service dog sleep with her. He’s thinking about someone else, which he wouldn’t have done before. He’s recognizing that someone is struggling. He knows his dog helps him so he’s going to let the dog sleep with his sibling. Those are profound changes from where he was.”  


Harley with his handler who has PTSDMany of the adults and children who received a Pawsitivity service dog struggled with anxiety, fear, anger, or outbursts. Almost everyone reported that the service dog helped the individual manage these feelings and return more quickly to a calmer state. They reported a change both in the moment and over time. Families saw the service dogs effectively respond to a strong emotional situation and use techniques (such as applying physical pressure) that help the individual manage that emotion. Many caregivers reported that the service dog’s response was the most effective calming tool they had. The special education teacher said that her Pawsitivity therapy dog was more effective at calming students than any of her other therapy tools. 

“My service dog has helped me a lot in the middle of my panic attacks. I would scream, cry, and sometimes hurt myself. My parents couldn’t do anything without a risk of getting hurt. It’s not like they could sit on me and stop me from doing anything, but my service dog can. I’ll start petting her and focusing all of my energy on her rather than directing it at myself, which makes feeling anxiety attacks a lot easier. They don’t last quite as long. She’s really helping.”

Adults and children also improved their emotional regulation over time. Individuals were calmer overall with fewer emotional events. One family said that the presence of the service dog helped “take the nervous energy down a notch.” Others said the dog was comforting, providing stability or emotional security.

“If my son is having a bad day, we can tell him to go hug the dog. Before, his emotions would get bigger and bigger and bigger and explode. We don’t have that anymore. He is able to control himself more.”

Some of the children feared medical treatments or had medical trauma. Parents were relieved that the service dog could accompany the child to medical treatment and improve the experience. For one family, the service dog allowed the child to resume treatments that had been cancelled.

“My son had become so traumatized by the hospital that he wouldn’t leave the house. He had medical PTSD. We had to stop all his therapies. It is almost impossible to put into words what having our service dog means. He goes to every hospital visit with my son. My son is still afraid but as long as his dog is with him it is tolerable, and we are able to get the medical stuff done for him.”


With the help of their service dog, adults and children were able to build confidence and gain independence. For many, confidence came from the reassurance that with their service dog they could safely handle new or challenging situations. Feeling in control of strong emotions opened up a world of possibilities for many of the adults and children.

“After my husband’s accident, he couldn’t even go out the front door. With the help of his service dog, he gained the confidence to be able to do some of the things that he desired to do. It was like he blossomed back to life. His whole demeanor improved. He wasn’t so scared of life itself.”

For many adults and children, the reassuring presence of the service dog allowed more independent behavior. For some individuals, the service dog performed guide or support functions allowing the person to navigate safely from their home, or back to it in the case of an emergency. For children with elopement behavior, the service dog was another layer of support that allowed the child or caregiver to feel safer outside the home.

“The service dog gives me an overall sense of security and independence. I am not as afraid to go into a public area where I can be vulnerable.”

Adults and children experienced a general increase in physical activity. For some, the responsibility of regular walks with the dog was a physical and therapeutic benefit. For others, physical activity increased because the dog gave them the security to leave the house more frequently.

“I go out of the house more with my son. We have access to a wider variety of activities. We go swimming at the beach. Our service dog can get right out there. That’s the best part because not only does my son bolt on land, he bolts on water!”

Some service dogs accompanied a child to school. Families found the dog to be helpful in supporting the child in this setting. Children who brought their service dog to school liked sharing their special dog with others and enjoyed the attention they received. The special education teacher reported that her Pawsitivity therapy dog helped children visiting the sensory room to “reset” so that they could return quickly to their mainstreamed classroom.

“I never thought my son was going to go to school. We tried and it was so traumatic. We gave up. I didn’t expect so much change when we got our service dog. My son thrived in school. I never thought that was going to happen. That was big for me, to get a piece back that I didn’t think would happen.”

Some parents reported that their child started sleeping independently for the first time when they received their service dog and that sleep quality improved (for everyone!)

“At age 14, my son still wanted to sleep with us. He had huge separation anxiety. When he got his service dog, he didn’t sleep with us anymore. He sleeps with his dog. That’s huge that he can do that. It shows me that he can connect with someone else.”

Some parents saw their child’s language improve after receiving the service dog. Children spoke to their service dog or enjoyed speaking to others about their service dog. One mother said she thinks that the language improvements her son made were also supported by the improved quality of sleep that came with the service dog.

“Our service dog elicits a lot of language from my son. You could see this steadily increase over time. As his language came back, she helped by drawing it out.”



Adults and children experienced positive social interactions when their service dog was with them. Some parents reported that their child would not be having social interactions if not for the service dog. The service dog promotes comfortable social interactions because it provides a focal point and a conversation starter. In these interactions, adults and children received positive instead of negative feedback about being different.

“When we take our service dog out in public, it’s a great way for my son to engage. He meets other kids and adults because everyone loves the dog. My son wants people to pet his dog. It’s his social bridge. At school in the morning, he has a crowd around him.”

Children were very proud of their “special dog.” Parents used the service dog to talk to their child about how being different is ok. The positive attention children received reinforced this message and helped build the child’s self-esteem. Having a dog that siblings envy probably contributed as well.

“The level of pride my son has in the dog is amazing. He loves her and it’s okay that he is different. He is special because he has the dog.”

Positive social interactions led to new friendships for some of the children who struggled socially before. Schoolmates were interested and intrigued by the special dog that came to school. Playing with the service dog was an easy and exciting reason for playdates. Likewise, one adult appreciated that being more confident leaving the house allowed them to reconnect with friends.

“My son never had a playdate before we had our service dog. He never had friends. He was afraid of kids his own age. Honestly, they were a little afraid of him, too. I bring the dog to school and talk to his class. Now, kids want to come over to our house so that they can pet the dog when he’s now working.”

Seeing a child improve their self-esteem was an important milestone for parents. Parents felt proud to see their child develop an independent and positive identity.

“I felt immensely proud of my son when he told me that he had opened up about autism to some of his friends and told them the dog was his service dog. It showed his self-acceptance. He wasn’t ashamed or afraid. He could show his true self.”

Parents also appreciated that the service dog was a recognized and accepted signal to the public that their child has a disability. Parents had experienced stigma in public about their parenting or their child’s behavior. Simply having a service dog along helped them feel more comfortable and affirmed.

“We deal with a lot of things in public that if we didn’t have a service dog, people would think we have a really naughty kid and should be handling our kid better. Having this dog shows people that we do have a handicap and it’s okay.”


The stories of the families who received Pawsitivity service dogs were inspiring. Caregivers shared the important ripple effects that the service dog had in their life and family. Caregivers worried less, gained independence, and improved family dynamics.


Caregivers found the service dog to be an indispensable tool. In many ways, the caregivers benefited as much from the service dog as the person receiving care. The service dog took over some of the caregiving and companionship responsibilities that the caregiver had been performing. Caregivers gained time, peace of mind, and a new sense of life balance.

“The dog picked up a lot of care I was giving. [Before,] I was always there beside him. I was there to help him sooth—help him through his episodes. The dog took my place for those things.”

Many caregivers were comforted that the service dog was always with the handler. Knowing that the service dog was with their child, parents could step away. Adults with disabilities said their family members were reassured to know that the dog would help them when they weren’t there.

“I know there’s another pair of eyes on my son no matter where I am in the house. That really helps me survive and not worry so much.”

Caregivers were amazed at what the service dog noticed and alerted them to. Some caregivers relied on the service dog to signal trouble or unusual activity.

“Our service dog is our guardian angel. My son had a seizure in the middle of the night. His service dog came to get my husband and I. Previously, he had had a seizure where he almost choked and died. So those are things I worry about. Our service dog alleviates the pressure [of monitoring] from me.”

Caregivers gained healthy independence from the person needing care. Being able to continue a career, go on a date, take a walk, or even just be in a different room made a big difference. One parent remarked that this new independence was not only healthy for her but that it helped her son’s development as well.

“I’ve never come across anything tougher in my life than being a full-time caregiver. My time was being consumed. I could not have kept my job without the service dog. The dog allowed me the freedom to continue with the things that were in my life before the diagnosis.”


Some of the parents of children with disabilities said they had grieved the loss of a “normal” childhood for their family. Having a dog in the family was one way to feel normal. Many families talked about the joy that the service dog brought to their whole family.

Xander the service dog in a kayak

“We had never had a dog and I had heard that they did wonders for kids on the autism spectrum. We were quite frankly grasping. We needed to find some semblance of a normal life because for 13 years we hadn’t had anything like a normal childhood for my son.”

Parents appreciated that with more of their child’s caretaking needs covered by the service dog, the family could focus on aspects of family life not related to caregiving. Parents appreciated having more time and energy to spend with other children or their spouse. They saw that everyone in the family benefited from this new balance.

“My other children had to take a back seat to the child that was in the most need. It was stealing their childhood. Having the service dog with my son, it means my other children can be kids. They don’t have to bear the responsibility of making sure their brother is safe.”

Families observed that the service dog was a focal point for bringing the family together (cuddling on the couch or going for a walk).For some, family vacations were now possible with the service dog making travel easier by simply riding along in the car or airplane.

“My family can go and do things we weren’t doing before. Now we fly on airplanes three times a year. Without our service dog, my family would be unable to stay together when we travel. My husband and I would be living separate lives. He would be taking one child and I’d be taking the other.”

People said that everyone in the family received emotional care from the service dog. Multiple people said that the service dog was first to notice that another family member was sick or having trouble. The dog was a comfort to them. Parents of multiple children said that the service dog helped their other children cope with their emotions.

“My son taught his service dog to hug. She will do that to anybody who needs it. For my other kids, the dog is a way they can calm down when they are upset. They all do that. She definitely has been a comfort for my other kids and myself as well.”


People were realistic about the time and effort it takes to have and maintain a service dog in a household. Service dogs have their own personalities and needs. If the service dog was sick, it became more of a burden than a help. Some parents of younger children struggled with maintaining the service dog’s routine and training while also caring for their children. Many people said that the service dog helped them be in public, but one parent said that the personality of their service dog meant that the dog wasn’t always helpful in public.

“There’s more to manage than I thought. I thought it would be turnkey. Everybody thinks service dogs are magic, but Tom told me it takes a while. I did get frustrated once. I felt I was maxed out and I needed to put my focus back on my son.”

Nearly every parent expressed anxiety about the future death of their child’s service dog. The dog was so important that they worried about how its absence would affect their child. They mentioned doing the math to figure out where their child would be in school during the end of the service dog’s expected lifetime. One parent said that her child worries about the death of the dog and it exacerbates his anxiety.

“I am so grateful to our service dog. I worry constantly about what life would be like if we lost him. I worry that my son would revert back to what he was like before our dog. As far as I’m concerned, our service dog is irreplaceable.”


Note: The section titled "Qualities of Pawsitivity" is reproduced in another section of this website because splitting up the report keeps this page from getting too long.


While planning for this evaluation, Pawsitivity wondered if their service dogs were making people’s lives easier or harder. Through the stories of the families in this report, it is clear that while at times their lives are not always easier, their lives are most certainly better. The important improvements that the children, adults, caregivers, and families made with the help of their service dog have changed their lives and paved the way for a higher quality of life in the future.