For Military Veterans Suffering from PTSD, Are Service Dogs Good Therapy?

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 28, 2018 | Go to article overview

For Military Veterans Suffering from PTSD, Are Service Dogs Good Therapy?


Byline: Karin Brulliard The Washington Post

Adam Fuller credits a simple, one-word command -- and a black Lab mix named J.D. -- for helping to save his life.

"Cover," he tells J.D., who is sitting to his left in a grassy field next to a park playground. The dog calmly walks to Fuller's right, then sits facing backward. Were someone coming up from behind, he'd wag his tail. The signal quells the sense of threat that plagued Fuller after serving in Afghanistan, that at one point had him futilely popping medications and veering toward suicide.

"Yes!" he praises J.D. as four women watch closely. They, too, are veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, who are here to be trained and to leave with canine support of their own. All seem to appreciate the strategy behind "cover," as their goateed instructor demonstrates with J.D.

"I wouldn't be here without him," Fuller says.

Every month, a new cycle of training begins with yet another class of veterans in a program run by the northern Florida K9s for Warriors. The seven-year-old nonprofit is one of dozens of private organizations that offer "psychiatric service" dogs to address the military's mental health crisis -- enabling desperate vets to function in society, proponents say.

Yet even as success stories allow these groups to briskly expand their work, their approach faces growing scrutiny from researchers and debate among veterans groups, politicians and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Analyzing the issue

At issue is whether the dogs truly help; what they should be trained to do; and who should pay for them.

VA has covered veterinary care for service dogs that assist veterans with physical disabilities for more than 15 years. It has declined to do that for PTSD service dogs, however, citing a lack of empirical evidence for their therapeutic value.

The agency is now conducting a $12 million multiyear study on the topic, even as it opposes legislation that would require it to pay for dogs in a separate pilot program.

"The numbers are startling on veteran suicides, and this is working," said Rory Diamond, a former federal prosecutor who quit to become chief executive of K9s for Warriors, where he had been providing pro bono legal services.

On a table in the organization's cheery lobby these days is a flier that says "research proves" the dogs save lives. It cites a recent first-of-its-kind study out of Purdue University that used standard questionnaires to assess PTSD symptoms and other aspects of mental health among 141 K9s for Warriors applicants, half teamed with a service dog and half on a waitlist.

Those with dogs showed significantly lower levels of post-traumatic stress, depression and social isolation, with higher levels of psychological well-being.

Still, lead author Maggie O'Haire, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction, emphasizes the study's "preliminary" nature and the need for more research on how service dogs might fit into treatment plans.

"There is so much political agenda behind this topic," she said.

Other investigations are underway, including a clinical trial that O'Haire is conducting with funding from the National Institutes of Health. VA's remains the biggest in scope, though, as well as the study that has drawn the most criticism.

Its 2011 start was rocky: Dogs, provided by contracted groups, bit participants' children, and trainers were "biasing" veterans with talk of the dogs' healing powers, said Michael Fallon, the agency's chief veterinary medical officer. The project was halted and redesigned to include VA-hired dog trainers and a control group of veterans provided with emotional-support dogs -- what Fallon calls a "very well-trained pet."

All 220 subjects were enrolled and matched with pooches by late 2017. Initial results are expected in 2019. Officials insist they're doing the kind of rigorous, controlled research that the field has been lacking. …

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