Canine Companions Help Battle-Scarred Soldiers Overpower PTSD

Evidence is accumulating that dogs work wonders when paired with members of the military with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a traumatic brain injury (TBI), or another mental health issue arising from their military experiences. The dogs offer a return to independence that comes with improved social interactions, less panic, and reduced stress and anxiety.

A dog whose partner has PTSD or other mental health issues is trained to respond to certain cues. If she senses that her partner is about to suffer a flashback, she may rest her head in his lap. If her partner is having a nightmare, she may rest her head on his chest, lick his face, or nuzzle his feet. Her presence when outside provides a sense of security. These dogs are recognized as service dogs under the Americans With Disabilities Act and are allowed the same public access as seeing eye or mobility-assistance dogs.

K9s for Warriors is one group that provides trained dogs to soldiers and veterans with PTSD. Founded by Shari Duvall as an outgrowth of her efforts to help her son—who returned from Iraq suffering from PTSD—K9s for Warriors partners with shelters and rescue groups in Florida for almost all of the dogs who come into its program. (There is the occasional donated dog, as well.) By the end of 2013, K9s for Warriors had paired 100 dogs with service members, all at no cost to the service members. Those dogs who don’t go on to become service dogs are placed for adoption.

Another group, Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) in Englewood, Colorado, works with military and non-military clients and relies exclusively on shelter dogs for its programs. FSD has created 32 canine-military member teams since 2011. As at K9s for Warriors, those dogs not well suited to be service dogs are adopted out to loving homes. There is usually a waiting list for the non-graduates, and no dog is ever returned to a shelter. FSD also provides lifetime support to its client-dog partners. When the dogs are ready to retire, service members usually choose to keep them; if not, the dogs return to FSD to be adopted out.

With the growing realization of their positive impact, the demand for service dogs to help with PTSD and other mental health problems continues to rise. The Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act of 2013 (H.R. 2847), a bill in Congress introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), proposes to address this need. The bill directs the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to establish a program to award competitive grants to organizations that train and place service dogs with members of the military and veterans with certain physical and mental health needs, including PTSD. Among other things, the application for a grant must state “the commitment of the organization to humane standards for the animals.”

On December 3, AWI joined Rep. McGovern in sponsoring a briefing for members of Congress and their staffs to acquaint them with the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act and allow them to hear from several of the soldiers and their canine partners, as well as from representatives of organizations that train and place service dogs. 

The personal stories of these wounded warriors and others of their lives prior to and after receiving their canine partners are touching and inspiring. Every story is different, but there are common themes: a soldier returns from a tour of duty—perhaps a second or third—and is unable to readjust to “normal” life. He spends more and more time alone, isolating himself from his family, sinking further into depression to the point where he hides in his bedroom or basement and eventually stops going outside altogether. Finally, a friend, a family member—or his own frustration—leads him to explore the service dog idea.

The soldiers at the briefing all attested to the transformation in their lives, the renewed ability to function and deal with the ongoing manifestations of their PTSD or TBI, and the near elimination of medications (going, in some instances, from 30 or 40 different medications to two or three). These individuals, who now travel around the country on behalf of their programs, wouldn’t leave their houses a year or two ago.

Unfortunately, under VA rules, service members seeking dogs to aid with PTSD do not qualify for the care and training benefits available to service members with visual, hearing, or mobility impairment. Despite the compelling and growing anecdotal evidence of the positive impact these dogs have, VA continues to demur, citing the lack of scientific studies to back such evidence. A congressionally mandated VA study designed to assess the impact service dogs have on the mental health and quality of life of veterans was halted in 2011, but will resume in 2014. Other research is also underway.

Under a Department of Defense grant, Warrior Canine Connection (WCC)—which teaches wounded warriors to train dogs for other service members—will investigate, according to an August 2013 story in Stars and Stripes, “the science behind why the dogs help troops deal with PTSD.” WCC points to studies in other settings that have shown “working with a dog releases oxytocin, a hormone that helps lower stress and anxiety levels and is essential to bonding.” In partnership with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the researchers will “examine changes in the wounded warriors’ physiology, perception, moods and biochemical markers for stress as they learn how to train the dogs.” Twenty participants “will undergo WCC’s service dog training program,” while another 20 “will interact socially, but not with a dog. Researchers will compare heart rate, changes in response to stress and other markers between the two groups.”

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, in conjunction with researchers from West Virginia University—which has a program for training service dogs—are also examining whether dogs can help veterans with PTSD both recover and return to the workforce. Part of this study involves simulating a work environment in which veterans will be asked to complete a stressful task with and without a dog present.

In the meantime, the stack of testimonials to this manifestation of the power of the human-animal bond continues to grow, as do the waiting lists for service dogs.


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