New study reveals service dogs reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans

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The trial is the largest one in the nation that compares service dog partnerships to standard care alone

Service dogs and PTSD

Photo: laurarts/Adobe Stock

A recent study led by the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, Tucson (CVM) sought to discover if a partnership with a trained service dog was associated with decreased post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity, lower anxiety, lower depression, and greater psychosocial functioning. According to the study’s findings, military members and veterans with PTSD reported having reduced symptoms after partnering with trained service dogs.1

The nonrandomized controlled trial, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), represents the largest study in the United States that compares service dog partnerships to standard care alone. The participants consisted of 156 military members and veterans with PTSD that were recruited from the database of K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides service dogs for veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma. Of the 156 participants, 81 received service dogs while 75 were placed on a waitlist. Following a 3-month period, the 81 participants who received service dogs reported significantly reduced severity of PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and depression. They also experienced decreased social isolation and increased companionship compared to the 75 participants in the control group. All participants had unrestricted access to their regular care throughout the study.1,2

“When you add [the partnership of service dogs] to existing medical practices, it can enhance your experience and reduce your symptoms more,” Maggie O’Haire, PhD, associate dean for research, professor at the CVM, and coauthor of the study, said in a news article.2

Service dogs are a guiding light

A veteran service dog is a carefully trained companion for military veterans navigating challenges stemming from their service. These canine companions are instructed in tasks like retrieving objects, opening doors, and providing stability to enhance the veteran's independence. They can also recognize signs of distress, wake veterans up from nightmares, calm panic attacks, and ease feelings of isolation and depression.3 Approximately 52% of veterans suffer from PTSD.4

Service dogs are widely sought after by veterans suffering from PTSD. In fact, these service dogs make up more than 19% of assistance dog partnership in the world, making them the 4th largest category, following guide dogs, mobility assistance dogs, and assistance dogs for autism.5

Past research

A similar study published earlier this year also conducted by the CVM measured cortisol levels in veterans with a service dog and those without. The study found that veterans with a service dog had healthier levels of cortisol than those without a service dog. These findings correlate with those of CVM’s latest trial, underlining the impact of service dogs on the wellbeing of veterans with PTSD.4

References

  1. Service dogs may reduce PTSD symptoms for military members and veterans. News release. National Institutes of Health. June 4, 2024. Accessed June 5, 2024. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/service-dogs-may-reduce-ptsd-symptoms-military-members-veterans
  2. Johnson CK. Service dogs helped ease PTSD symptoms in US military veterans, researchers say. The Associated Press. June 4, 2024. Accessed June 5, 2024. https://apnews.com/article/ptsd-service-dogs-military-veterans-805783ec5b5ded646831fee0e88ed2da#
  3. How service dogs benefit and impact veterans’ wellbeing. Mission Roll Call. September 13, 2023. Accessed June 5, 2024. https://www.missionrollcall.org/post/how-service-dogs-benefit-and-impact-veterans-well-being
  4. Yankowicz S. Veterans report healthier cortisol levels from the support and companionship of service dogs. dvm360. February 15, 2024. Accessed June 5, 2024. https://www.dvm360.com/view/veterans-report-healthier-cortisol-levels-from-the-support-and-companionship-of-service-dogs
  5. Leighton SC, Nieforth LO, O’Haire ME. Assistance dogs for military veterans with PTSD: A systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-synthesis. PLOS ONE. 2022;17(9). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0274960
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