Service dogs have long been assigned to veterans with certain physical disabilities, but just how much help they can provide is being tested, thanks to a new study being conducted by Purdue University. The new research examines whether dogs can help veterans with mental health disorders.
In April 2015, the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation announced it had awarded a $42,000 grant to researchers at Purdue to lead this first-of-its-kind, controlled scientific study measuring the effects of service dogs on post 9/11 war veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
“While there are existing PTSD treatments available for veterans, a number of them have limited effectiveness and high drop-out rates,” says Maggie O’Haire, PhD, a human-animal interaction professor at Purdue University who is leading the study. “This controlled research study will document the impact of service dogs on veterans, which may provide an effective addition to enhance current practices.”
Getting Scientific Data To Back Up How Dogs Help
In the past decade, numerous studies have confirmed that companion animals help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, yet the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has cited a lack of specific scientific evidence on the effectiveness of service animals for war veterans suffering from these conditions.
Test subjects for the Purdue study are participants in the K9s For Warriors program, a nonprofit organization that pairs war veterans with service dogs at no cost to war veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and/or military sexual trauma as a result of military service post 9/11.
“K9s For Warriors has achieved a high success rate with our program, which trains and pairs more than 70 dogs and veterans each year,” says Rory Diamond, K9s For Warriors’ executive director. “We’ve seen first-hand how service dogs in our program have positively impacted dozens of war heroes, and we are eager to validate our work through hard science.”
The research team is focusing specifically on post-traumatic stress disorder — known to many as PTSD — looking to find out if service dogs really have a tangible impact on veterans suffering from PTSD and possibly other anxiety-related conditions.
According to Diamond, more than 90 percent of the program’s graduates report they are able to reduce medications or stop taking them within six months of the three-week dog pairing course. O’Haire says non-biased data is needed to back up these numbers and to find out what it is about dogs that often can help improve people’s lives.
“There are a lot of theories and a lot of suggestions, but we don’t know exactly why, and it may be different for different people so for some people having that relaxing, calming impact of petting the dog or watching that fish tank can reduce their anxiety, and that’s really where the benefit is,” she says. “But for other people, it may be that they’re shy and they’re lonely and having that social connection with that animal is what helps.”
How The Study Will Be Done
Researchers will run a battery of tests on the veterans — 50 who already have dogs and 50 on the organization’s 14-month waitlist — to determine differences in medication, stress levels (measured as stress hormones in saliva), relationships, overall function and quality of life.
According to O’Haire, the study will monitor the health and wellness of the K9s For Warriors participants, including medical, physiological and self-perception indicators. It is hypothesized that the veterans who have service dogs will demonstrate better health and wellness compared to those receiving other treatment services while on the waitlist for a service dog.
“If we don’t know through research that it works, a doctor isn’t going to necessarily recommend this service, and we won’t have resources to improve this service or to reach a wider variety of people who might really benefit from it,” she says. “This study will capture a very specific period of time and use it as pilot data for a longer, larger study that could be very important in finding out how and why this may or may not work, and for whom.”