Helping Our Heros: Can Dogs Aid Returned Veterans?

Service dogs have long been recognized for their ability to assist their human companions. Since the 18th century, guide dogs have helped the vision impaired. In the 1970s, their training expanded to mitigate the needs of those with other disabilities. As of 2013, over 50,000 people in the United States with disabilities benefit from the service of these highly trained, working dogs.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the recognized tasks of service dogs is to assist “a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack.”  PTSD commonly results from traumatic experiences, such as the violence to which military personnel in war zones are exposed. PTSD causes biochemical and physical changes in the brain and body, including altered levels of serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters) and size reduction of the hippocampus (one of the memory centers of the brain). Common symptoms include re-experiencing these traumatic events, awake or in dreams, causing tremendous anxiety. PTSD sufferers may even “shut down” at times when their surroundings become too overwhelming.

Service dogs can likely help with the symptoms with PTSD. Anecdotal evidence from dog owners suggests that spending time with dogs, such as chilling on the couch, throwing tennis balls, or going for walks, is relaxing, restorative, and enjoyable. In other words, these interactions relieve stress, anxiety, and depression.  However, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), while acknowledging dogs lessen stress, says “Clinically, there is not enough research yet to know if dogs actually help treat PTSD and its symptoms.”

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Research is underway to address the issue of whether animal-assisted intervention (AAI) can help our returned veterans struggling with PTSD. At the University of Colorado, Dr. Cheryl A. Krause-Parello, an associate professor in nursing and founder and director of C-P.A.W.W. (Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors: a Health Research Initiative for Veterans), is leading the research. She and her research team are conducting clinical research to investigate the therapeutic effects of AAI.

According to Jessica Grey, one of the research assistants at C-P.A.W.W., dogs sense when PTSD sufferers are becoming anxious. “Their touch can help ground them and bring them back to the here and now.”

C- P.A.W.W. has two grants to study AAI in the military population. One will underwrite a pilot study on the effects of canine interaction on stress indicators  (salivary cortisol, salivary alpha-amylase, immunoglobulin A, blood pressure, and heart rate) in older, hospitalized veterans. The other will investigate “the biobehavioral and psychobiologic interface among animal-assisted therapy and stress indicators, salivary cortisol, salivary alpha-amylase, and IgA, blood pressure, and pulse, in wounded warriors being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.”

“Plenty of anecdotal evidence indicates that dogs help. Dogs are nonjudgmental and supremely compassionate,” says Grey. “The goals of the research are to provide objective data that indicate how canines relieve stress and to find the cases in which canines can be a reliable source of stress relief. Ultimately, we hope the data will make it easier for those who need this kind of assistance to get it.”

The research methods are non-invasive. To gauge a veteran’s stress level, his/her heart rate and blood pressure are measured and saliva samples taken before and after encounters with a therapy  dog. These measurements and stress markers, such as cortisol levels, in the saliva objectively establish stress levels for analysis.

C- P.A.W.W. is partnering with Pets for Vets and Warrior Canine Connection. Pets for Vets rescues, trains, and matches shelter dogs with veterans looking for companion and service animals. At Warrior Canine Connection, veterans train service dogs as “a valuable opportunity for a Warrior suffering from psychological injuries to reintegrate into civilian life.” The trained dogs are then placed with fellow veterans.

According to the VA, if the clinical evidence ultimately shows that veterans with PTSD benefit from service dogs, the VA will provide veterinary care for these dogs.

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picm_july2014First published in Pets in the City Magazine, July 2014

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