They say a dog is a man’s best friend, and when a person has to rely on their dog on a daily basis, there is no truer statement. The impacts are both life-changing and lifesaving.
This is the reality of many veterans who find themselves struggling with service-related Post-Traumatic Stress, shutting themselves off from the outside world and unable to manage daily tasks or even venturing outside of their home.
Research led by Dr Miranda Van Hooff, Director of MESHA, aims to validate the effectiveness of assistance dogs for veterans and emergency service personnel with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with the hope of gaining funding to provide more service men and women with assistance dogs.
“We have been evaluating the effectiveness of two internationally accredited Australian PTSD assistance dog programs, the Royal Society for the Blind’s Operation K9 and PTSD Assist a program run by Assistance Dogs Australia over the past few years. Both programs use assistance dogs as an adjunct treatment for Defence veterans and first responders with Post-Traumatic Stress.
In addition to examining the short-term impacts of having an assistance dog, we are also interested in whether these impacts are sustained over a two year period, as this can have enormous health and economic implications for the service member, their family and the community in the long-term,” Dr Van Hooff said.
As part of this research, Honours student Melissa Sherman is analysing face to face interviews and survey results from veterans with assistance dogs to determine the effectiveness of these programs in improving mental, physical and social health outcomes.
“I will be looking at data collected from veterans at four timepoints: baseline (before their assistance dog), then three, six and 12 months after they received their furry friend,” Melissa said.
“At all timepoints participants completed a face to face interview as well as questionnaires regarding information on their mental health and wellbeing including Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms, suicidality, depression and anxiety symptoms.
“This mixed method approach is first of its kind in Australia.”
Promising preliminary findings
It is early stages, but Melissa has already seen some extremely promising results.
“There has been a decrease in the severity of the Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms over time which speaks volumes of the impact these assistance dogs can have on veterans,” Melissa said.
“Most importantly, veterans have shared that they have a renewed sense of purpose and hope now that they have their dogs. There has also been a reduction in suicidal thoughts and behaviour since having their dog, highlighting the potential that these dogs are in fact saving lives.”
The assistance dogs have been trained to help their owner by performing tasks such as interrupting episodes of stress and anxiety and providing benefits in terms of supporting independence and social interactions as well as specific tasks tailored to the veterans’ needs.
“The results speak for themselves; assistance dogs are life-changing and we hope from this research they can be available to more veterans as an adjunct therapy in the future.”
Read how assistance dog Sophie helped Vietnam Veteran Trevor rediscover his life again: A Golden Saviour for Trevor