New research is under way at Purdue University to determine whether service dogs can alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Marguerite O'Haire, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction at the school's College of Veterinary Medicine, is leading a study of 100 post-9/11 veterans to see if a dog trained to help a veteran with PTSD influences medical symptoms, social anxiety, relationships and more.
The research could help answer a question that has plagued the Veterans Affairs Department, which provides service dogs to former troops with certain physical disabilities but not those with mental health disorders: Do service dogs have a tangible impact on veterans with PTSD and other anxiety-related conditions?
Stave Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute Foundation, or HABRI, said the outcome, along with the results of a VA study on the same topic, could steer the department toward policy changes.
"The VA's most recent regulations on service animals say they would fund them for physical disability but not for mental disabilities because they said there wasn't enough scientific evidence that shows animals help with PTSD. We believe they do," Feldman said.
For her study, O'Haire is working with K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization in Florida that trains rescue animals to what is often called the "gold standard" for service dog training, Assistance Dogs International testing, then pairs the animals with combat veterans who have PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury.
O'Haire will run a battery of tests on the veterans — 50 who already have dogs and 50 on the organization's 14-month wait list — to assess differences in medication, stress levels (measured as stress hormones in saliva), relationships, overall function and quality of life.
K9s For Warriors Executive Director Rory Diamond said 92 percent of the organization's graduates report that they are able to reduce their medications or stop taking them altogether within six months of graduating from the three-week dog pairing course.
But O'Haire said nonbiased data is needed to back up such assessments.
"This study will capture a very specific period of time and use it as pilot data for a longer, larger study that could be very important in finding out how and why this may or may not work, and for whom," she said.
PTSD and combat-related depression is thought to affect up to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, according to a 2008 RAND Corp. study. And roughly 30 percent of post-9/11 veterans treated at VA medical facilities have screened positive for PTSD, according to the department.
To expand the scientific knowledge of the effects of service animals on vets with PTSD, Congress in 2010 ordered VA to craft a research study on the topic. That effort launched in 2011 but was halted after two service dogs in the study bit children in their handlers' homes.
The research was suspended again in 2012 when concerns arose over training and inadequate care of dogs at a facility involved in the study.
VA announced in March that the three-year study is again restarting, now redesigned and expanded to include "emotional support dogs," or pets.
The study will involve 230 veterans with PTSD in Atlanta, Iowa City, Iowa, and Portland, Oregon and will use dogs from facilities in California, Alabama and North Carolina.
VA officials say they have learned lessons from the early setbacks.
"Safety is our main concern," Patricia Dorn, director of VA Rehabilitation Research and Development, said in a press release. "As in all VA clinical trials, the safety and well-being of the veteran comes first. In this study, we also extend that concern to the dogs."
Dogs trained to assist people with PTSD learn a range of tasks, such as standing in front of or behind them to fend off crowds or approaching people, waking a person from a nightmare or "sweeping" a room for other people before a handler enters.
Unlike trained service dogs, emotional support dogs — the other animals involved in VA's research — will provide love, companionship and affection but won't be trained to handle tasks related to PTSD.
"An emotional support dog is a very well-behaved pet," said Dr. Michael Fallon, VA's chief veterinarian.
Feldman, whose organization provided $42,000 to Purdue University to fund the study, said he is eager for the results from both studies.
"We think pet dogs, therapy animals and service animals all have a role to play in peoples' health and veterans' health. This is all good news. A cold nose is a powerful motivation to get up in the morning," Feldman said.
Diamond expressed hope that the Purdue study will validate his observations of the K9s For Warriors program, that pairing PTSD dogs with former troops makes for happier, healthier vets.
"The first Monday of every month, a new class of warriors gets their dogs, and I guarantee, the next day, veterans will tell me they got their first night of real sleep in years," Diamond said. "A dog waking you up from a nightmare is so much better than what's going on in that dream."
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.