Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, hugs his service dog, Yoko, at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C. VA is restarting a study to measure the effectiveness of trained service dogs in easing PTSD symptoms. (Senior Airman Christina Brownlow/Air Force)
A much-anticipated Veterans Affairs Department study into the effectiveness of service dogs for treating post-traumatic stress disorder will restart in the coming months with veterans receiving dog care training in anticipation of being paired with an animal.
The study, “Can Service Dogs Improve Activity and Quality of Life in Veterans With PTSD?” will include 220 veterans, half teamed with a dog trained to address their disability, and the rest paired with an emotional support dog — basically, a pet or companion that has passed a rigorous obedience course but is not specifically trained to perform tasks to mitigate PTSD.
The research aims to determine the impact of a service dog on the quality of life and activities of a veteran with PTSD compared to a common companion animal or pet.
The differences between the two are notable. Trained, well-bred service dogs can cost upward of $25,000, including purchase, training and care, and are allowed by law to accompany their handlers in public spaces. And, depending on the study outcome, they might become an accepted treatment for PTSD covered by VA.
Emotional support dogs essentially are well-trained pets that provide comfort and support. They do not have the same public access as service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act, although they are offered some protections under the Fair Housing Act and on commercial airlines.
The 2010 Defense Authorization Act required VA to study the effectiveness of service dogs for PTSD.
VA provides support and veterinary care for dogs for visual and hearing disabilities, as well as mobility impairments, including traumatic brain injuries that cause seizures or affect a vet’s ability to move or make decisions.
But it does not cover service dogs for mental health disorders.
VA has partnered with several service dog organizations to pair veterans with PTSD with potential service dogs, but the vets in these programs are working with dogs that are later trained as guide or service dogs for veterans with physical disabilities.
VA has said there isn’t enough scientific evidence regarding their effectiveness for that purpose to warrant benefits coverage. And when it comes to PTSD, VA officials say they must use proven treatments.
While stories abound about veterans with PTSD and service dogs, few clinical studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of animals for PTSD.
In April, a Texas State University researcher completed a small study on the topic that found PTSD symptoms were reduced by 22 percent in veterans who completed training their own psychiatric service dog through the program Train A Dog Save A Warrior.
According to graduate student Jeff Nelson, study participants completed the PTSD Checklist-Military Version, or PCL-M, a self-assessment of PTSD symptoms. Those who finished the program scored nearly 12 points lower — in other words, they had fewer symptoms — than those entering the program.
Nelson acknowledged some limitations in the study. For example, it did not measure results against a control group or incorporate companion dogs.
And because of time constraints, Nelson was not able to administer the PCL-M to the same participants before and after the training — a measure he said would better reflect the effectiveness of the Train A Dog Save A Warrior program.
But, he said, the findings should nonetheless contribute to the somewhat scant clinical research.
“This is a good first step. Serious organizations are not going to give money for more research or programs without evidence of it being effective and, if it works, it hopefully will bring more people into the treatment,” Nelson said.
VA’s original study on the effectiveness of service dogs for PTSD was suspended in September 2012 amid concerns over the animals’ care at some facilities, as well as the dogs’ training.
According to VA, 17 dogs were placed with veterans before the shutdown. Six participants have completed the study, six are still involved and five withdrew. Sixteen veterans still have their dogs; one was euthanized for health issues, spokeswoman Gina Jackson said.
When the study resumes, the eight veterans who signed consent forms for the original study but did not receive a dog will be at the top of the list.