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Service Dogs Supporting Military Veterans


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Fighting for our nation, making all sorts of personal sacrifices for the good of country, you’d think our U.S. Veteran’s Administration (USVA) would have their backs providing or at least supporting service dogs for veterans.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration (and other sources), there’s more Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Syndrome (PTSD) diagnosed today than ever before. One reason may simply be doctors understand the condition, and are willing and able to diagnose say compared to 30 years ago. Another issue, according to experts, may be the stress of being in the military, compounded by those real traumatic events. And still another may be the world the veterans return to in the U.S. No matter, PTSD is real. And the VA is the first to say so.

According to VAhealth.org: currently, 20 percent of Iraq war veterans and 11 percent of Afghanistan war veterans report battling PTSD. Keep in mind, no one knows how many individuals are undiagnosed because they don’t ask for help. Some suggest it’s not unreasonable to suggest one in four Iraq war veterans suffers PTSD.

Yet, when it comes to treatment options and information provided about living with PTSD – there’s no official government mention of support for service dogs for veterans.

There’s innumerable anecdotal evidence and also mounting scientific evidence to demonstrate benefits, and often life-saving of service dogs for veterans.

Suicides rates among veterans with PTSD, not to mention other assorted problems

Suicide rates are off the charts for soldiers diagnosed with PTSD with nearly 40 attempts daily, and around half that number succeed at ending their own lives. Nowhere is the connection between PTSD and suicide felt more strongly than in the veteran community. In fact, veterans who experience combat trauma are at the highest relative suicide risk than individuals exposed to other types of trauma.

It’s no surprise that veterans with PTSD are also more likely to suffer from depression and are sometimes reluctant to go out in public. Unemployment or underemployment rates may are higher among veterans with PTSD. Medications are typically required. Many of these soldiers also have concurrent medical problems to deal with, which may be complicated by social stigma. That’s not to mention additional quality-of-life issues, such as nightmares and sleep deprivation as a result, or being over-vigilant when out in public, sometimes unable to relax even at home.

What if service dogs for veterans only helped a minuscule minority of individuals? If the suicide rate is lessened lives are saved. If drugs (which taxpayers bankroll) aren’t needed, we all benefit. And if even a few PTSD sufferers could go to work who currently are not, that’s better for them and for society.

The VA maintains they need to be convinced of the value of service dogs…..Of course, there are thousands of veterans who maintain service dogs have changed their lives. Somehow that doesn’t seem to matter to the VA.

Purdue published research

Dr. Maggie E. O’Haire, assistant professor human-animal interaction, with Kerri Rodriquez, both at the Department of Comparative Pathobiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine Purdue University, just published a study in the Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI).

O’Haire studied two groups that included only soldiers who had been deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq, over 90 percent of whom served in the Army.

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Of the 141 participants in the study, 66 individuals received usual or traditional care for diagnosed PTSD, while 75 received the appropriate or traditional care as well as a trained service dog.

The demand is high for effective PTSD treatment options for military personnel. Traditional treatments do help some individuals. However, due to financial constraints, red tape, and availability regarding military medical care, some individuals have limited access to begin with. As many as 50 percent or more receiving care may have little or no response to traditional treatments, all while PTSD is at an all-time high.

The study’s hypothesis was that participants with PTSD placed with a service dog in addition to their current care would show decreased PTSD symptom severity, decreased depression, and increased quality of life.

The service dogs for veterans were provided by K9’s For Warriors (mostly Golden and Labrador Retriever and mixed breeds, and predominately rescued from shelters). Soldiers trained with K9’s For Warriors headquarters for three weeks, learning how to care and communicate basic cues to the dogs, such as “sit,” “stay,” and “heel.”

Dogs were also trained to mitigate PTSD symptoms. For example, they learned to avert panic attacks during moments of heightened anxiety or agitation and to wake up their partner during a nightmare. Some soldiers benefit by using the dogs as a brace (for balance) and having dogs who learn to pick up and retrieve objects.

Purdue study results

Vague terms, such as depression and quality of life, can actually be measured using scales created by experts in the field, which O’Haire utilized to determine improvement rather than to depend on self-reported anecdotal comments and stories from the soldiers.

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Participants with service dogs experienced significantly lower depression symptomology and higher social functioning compared to those who didn’t have service dogs. There wasn’t a significant difference in employment rates between those with dogs and those without, but those with dogs missed fewer days on the job (the health benefits for anyone living with a dog may play into this factor). Having a dog enhanced quality of life, which should be a compelling factor alone.

Some (including one conversation I had with a VA official several years ago) have expressed concerns that those with dogs may not seek out evidence-based treatment for PTSD and use the dog as a substitute and not an adjunct. The results of this study contradicts that assertion, and also clearly prove that service dogs may be beneficial.

So, what if these dogs are an amazing placebo effect? Who cares! If the veterans want dogs, we need to support their wishes. We (society at large) will all benefit, but it’s also simply the right thing to do.

 

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