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Can Service Dogs Help Veterans Suffering From PTSD?

A new study examines the effect of psychiatric service dogs on the mental health and well-being of veterans who have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

PTSD and Veterans

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that some people develop after witnessing, or experiencing, a traumatic event. PTSD is a common disorder amongst veterans, primarily those who were in combat. In fact, of the 2.6 million veterans who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimated 6-14% are affected by PTSD.

Why Service Dogs?

PTSD can be difficult to treat, and there is no one method that is a heal-all. While certain treatment plans and programs can be effective for the management or mitigation of PSTD symptoms, there are high drop-out rates. Additionally, the family members of these veterans are often impacted by way of caregiver burden or secondary trauma. Treatments that include these persons are rare.

Psychiatric service dogs trained specifically for PTSD offer a number of benefits. These dogs are trained for tasks including: waking the veteran up from nightmares, averting panic attacks, creating a space barrier from others while in public, and much more. Beyond these services comes an increased sense of safety and confidence for both the veteran and the surrounding family unit.

The Research

Purdue University researchers Maggie O’Haire and Kerri Rodriguez conducted an empirical study of psychiatric service dogs and their effects on the mental health of veterans suffering from PTSD. The OHAIRE lab worked in collaboration with K9 for Warriors, a nonprofit organization that places service dogs with veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD (amongst other disabilities).

K9 for Warriors not only has extensive training for the service dogs, but for the veterans as well. Veterans who will be receiving a service dog must first complete a 3-week course in which they learn how to care for and handle the dog. Furthermore, the veterans must fill out a PTSD Check List. This scale assesses the symptoms of those obtaining a service dog, both before and after the dog is in their possession. Scores above 50, on a scale that typically ranges from 17 to 85, are considered a PTSD diagnosis. Once the veterans re-complete the Check List it is compared to their initial score. A shift by 10 points (up or down) is considered meaningful, which will come into play later in the study.

The Participants

The study included 141 veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD as a result of deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. These veterans were split into two groups: those paired with serviced dogs, and those on a waiting list. Those who had a psychiatric service dog could have had the dog for any length of time ranging from one month to four years.

In addition to completing the PTSD Check List at the start and at the conclusion of the study, participants completed various assessments to measure other conditions.

The Results: Were the Service Dogs Beneficial?

Overall, the veterans paired with a service dog seemed to have improved over the course of the research. At the start of the study, both groups of participants received about the same score on the Check List. When tested again at the end of the study, veterans with service dogs had an average drop of 12 points indicating fewer PTSD symptoms. Veterans who were on the waiting list during this time did not report any change.

The participants who were paired with service dogs not only experienced a decrease in PTSD symptoms, but also reported higher levels of well-being, lesser depression, and fewer impairments with social activities and work life.

To read more about the implications and limitations of this study, please visit The OHAIRE Lab.

Sources: Graph by Hal Herzog.

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