Home » New Study Shows Service Dogs Improve PTSD Symptoms in Veterans

New Study Shows Service Dogs Improve PTSD Symptoms in Veterans

by Richard A Reagan

In recent research findings, specially trained service dogs have been shown to alleviate symptoms of PTSD among U.S. military veterans, providing a promising therapeutic option alongside traditional treatments. 

This small-scale study underscores the potential to broaden support strategies for our nation’s heroes.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which already offers talk therapy and medications to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, also oversees a pilot program involving service dogs. 

While the VA currently prescribes service dogs for veterans diagnosed with visual, hearing, or substantial mobility impairments—including those eligible with PTSD—it covers some associated costs of maintaining a service dog. 

According to VA press secretary Terrence Hayes, the ongoing research aims to substantiate the dog’s therapeutic efficacy further. “We are committed to providing high-quality, evidence-based care to all those who served,” Hayes stated.

The study, conducted by the University of Arizona’s veterinary college, aimed to provide scientific backing to the increasing popularity of service dogs in treating veterans. 

Maggie O’Haire, a co-author of the study, expressed the objective of establishing a firm scientific foundation for this approach, which has historically lacked empirical support.

The research was executed in collaboration with K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that pairs veterans with service dogs. 

These dogs are trained over a three-week group class to detect physical signs of distress in veterans and can intervene during panic attacks or nightmares with a comforting nudge.

In a controlled comparison, 81 veterans who received service dogs were evaluated against 75 veterans on the waiting list for a trained dog. 

The assessment was carried out by psychology doctoral students who were unaware of the veterans’ group assignments. After three months, although improvements were noted in both groups, the veterans with service dogs exhibited significantly greater improvements in PTSD symptoms.

Despite the positive outcomes, the study did acknowledge the potential influence of non-specific factors, as approximately 40% of veterans in both the test and control groups owned pet dogs and all had access to other PTSD treatments

The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in JAMA Network Open, suggests that service dogs should be viewed as a complementary treatment rather than a standalone solution.

The broader implications for veterans are profound. PTSD affects up to 29% of Iraq war veterans over their lifetimes, according to the VA, with symptoms including nightmares, flashbacks, and a constant state of alertness. 

Veterans like Dave Crenshaw, who served with the Army National Guard in Iraq, testify to the profound impact of service dogs. Diagnosed with PTSD in 2016, Crenshaw struggled with traditional treatments until he met his service dog, Doc, a pointer-black lab mix, in 2019. 

Crenshaw credits Doc with drastically improving his quality of life, stating, “It’s just an overwhelming feeling of ‘Hey, everything’s going to be OK.’”

Crenshaw’s story is not unique, as many veterans report similar transformative experiences with their service dogs. This research aims to support the expansion of service dog programs, ensuring that more veterans might experience the same benefits as Crenshaw. 

With continued advocacy and research, service dogs could become a cornerstone of therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD.

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