Do service dogs truly assist veterans who have returned from deployment with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome (PTSD)?
While there have been anecdotal reports and various studies, published research is somewhat limited. For this reason (and likely others, including budget) the Veterans Administration (VA) withdrew support of service dogs for veterans with PTSD under President Barak Obama’s administration. Despite complaints of several senators, the VA didn’t adjust their position. Today, the government barely supports the notion that service dogs help veterans with PTSD, let alone provide any financing for the training of dogs.
At the time, I was told by a VA representative that it’s because “There’s no valid proof these dogs actually improve the quality of life of affected veterans.”
No question, anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly indicates otherwise. No matter, additional published science has been needed.
Dr. Maggie E. O’Haire, assistant professor human-animal interaction, with Kerri Rodriquez, both at the Department of Comparative Pathobiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine Purdue University, just published a study in the Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI).
O’Haire studied two groups that included only soldiers who had been deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq, over 90 percent of whom served in the Army.
Of the 141 participants in the study, 66 individuals received usual or traditional care for diagnosed PTSD, while 75 received the appropriate or traditional care as well as a trained service dog.
The demand is high for effective PTSD treatment options for military personnel. Traditional treatments do help some individuals. However, due to financial constraints, red tape, and availability regarding military medical care, some individuals have limited access to begin with. As many as 50 percent or more receiving care may have little or no response, all while PTSD is at an all-time high.
According to the VA, a higher percentage of military personnel than ever are returning from combat with PTSD. More than 400,000 are now being treated for PTSD. A part of that may be that symptoms are being recognized more often by medical professionals, and there’s more public awareness regarding the syndrome.
No matter, various sources indicate that soldiers with PTSD are far more likely to commit suicide. Suicide rates are off the charts for soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, with nearly 40 attempts daily, and around half that number succeed at ending their own lives.
It’s no surprise that veterans with PTSD are also more likely to suffer from depression and are sometimes reluctant to go out in public. Unemployment or underemployment rates may also be higher among veterans with PTSD. Medications are typically required. Many of these soldiers also have concurrent medical problems to deal with, which may be complicated by social stigma.
That’s not to mention additional quality-of-life issues, such as nightmares or being over-vigilant when out in public, sometimes unable to relax even at home.
The study’s hypothesis was that participants with PTSD placed with a service dog in addition to their current care would show decreased PTSD symptom severity, decreased depression, and increased quality of life.
The service dogs were provided by K9’s For Warriors (mostly Golden and Labrador Retriever and mixed breeds, and predominately rescued from shelters). Soldiers trained with K9’s For Warriors headquarters for three weeks, learning how to care and communicate basic cues to the dogs, such as “sit,” “stay,” and “heel.”
Dogs were also trained to mitigate PTSD symptoms. For example, they learned to avert panic attacks during moments of heightened anxiety or agitation and to wake up their partner during a nightmare. Some soldiers benefit by using the dogs as a brace (for balance) and having dogs who learn to pick up and retrieve objects.
Vague terms, such as depression and quality of life, can actually be measured using scales created by experts in the field, which O’Haire utilized to determine improvement rather than to depend on self-reported anecdotal comments and stories from the soldiers.
Participants with service dogs experienced significantly lower depression symptomology and higher social functioning compared to those who didn’t have service dogs. There wasn’t a significant difference in employment rates between those with dogs and those without, but those with dogs missed fewer days on the job (the health benefits for anyone living with a dog may play into this factor). Having a dog enhanced quality of life, which should be a compelling factor alone.
Some (including one conversation I had with a VA official several years ago) have expressed concerns that those with dogs may not seek out evidence-based treatment for PTSD and use the dog as a substitute and not an adjunct. The results of this study contradict that assertion.
O’Haire concedes there are some limitations to this study, which is arguably a landmark study.
Still, this study, other studies (albeit some less well-constructed), and countless anecdotes from soldiers who are living with service dogs and report their lives changed, should be convincing. Looking at those suicide rate numbers without dogs (vastly great than those with dogs), should matter. This study is, after all, the science the VA told me they were seeking.