Service dogs can significantly reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in veterans, according to the preliminary findings of a Kaiser Permanente study.
The dogs were also found to improve veterans’ relationships and lower their substance abuse.
Researcher Carla Green led the year-long “Pairing Assistance-Dogs with Soldiers” (PAWS) study and recently shared her findings with legislators at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“The study is significant because no research has been conducted on how service dogs affect the mental health of veterans,” Green said. Although benefits for veterans cover service dogs for physical disabilities, they are not available for help with mental health problems.
“The PAWS project will be used as supporting evidence to hopefully gain federal funding for a larger clinical trial,” Green said. The study, so far, has included 75 veterans who have completed surveys and interviews, some of whom have a service dog and others who are on the waiting list.
The veterans have reported receiving a variety of benefits from their service dogs: fewer nightmares, reduced need for medications, improved sense of security, decreased anxiety, and overall quality of life improvements for themselves and their caregivers.
The study is set to be completed at the end of this month, and results are expected to be published in January. The researchers’ intention is to prove that the service dogs can significantly enhance the mental health of veterans with PTSD, resulting in benefit coverage.
One veteran had suffered from 13 years of panic attacks, nightmares, and anxiety resulting from his 38 consecutive months in combat. He had to wait two and a half years before he received his service dog, a golden retriever, through Paws Assisting Veterans.
He has been able to stop taking his antipsychotic and antidepressant medications and has also reduced his therapy visits from once or twice a week to once a month. He is also able to get out of the house more easily now and can volunteer at his children’s school.
“It’s completely changed my quality of life,” he said.
As many as several hundred thousand veterans may now suffer from PTSD, say experts. The most common symptoms are anxiety, anger, depression, flashbacks, and nightmares.
This article first appeared on ‘Psych Central’ on 23 December 2014.