Army veteran Randy Dexter doesn’t need an academic study to tell him what he already knows — that his service dog, Captain, is the reason he’s no longer the “suicidal mess” he was after returning home from war with PTSD.
Nevertheless, new research backs him up.
A study by Purdue University researchers, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in February, shows veterans who had service dogs to help with their diagnosed cases of PTSD were much better off psychologically than their peers who were on a waiting list to receive an animal.
Vets with service dogs reported a 22 percent higher rate of life satisfaction, as well as similarly increased rates of mental health, resilience and ability to participate in social activities. At the same time, they indicated having fewer PTSD symptoms and lower levels of depression, according to researchers Marguerite O’Haire and Kerri Rodriguez of the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine, who told Military Times their study uses the largest sample size of any published research on this topic.
The researchers partnered with the nonprofit K9s for Warriors for the study, using self-reported data from 141 veterans who had either received or applied for a dog from the organization. All had unrestricted access to usual care for PTSD during the study.
Dexter, 35, credits Captain with saving him from the isolation and depression he felt before getting a service animal.
“I feel confident and OK to go out in the world and do things when I’m with him,” Dexter said, adding that having the dog allows him to be the type of leader he once was as a combat medic in the military.
After the two were paired in 2014 by K9s for Warriors, where Dexter now works as a campus director, Captain started going to college classes — and everywhere else — with his new owner.
“Captain is my eyes and ears,” Dexter said. “He is hypervigilant for me, so when I’m walking in between classes, I can watch his body language. I don’t have to be scanning all the different faces. I don’t have to be scanning the rooftops.”
The service dogs included in the Purdue study were psychiatric service dogs, different from emotional support or other types of therapy animals. They are trained specifically to mitigate symptoms of PTSD, such as hypervigilance and anxiety, as well as nightmares and feelings of isolation, according to the report.
And though researchers didn’t find that service dogs accounted for any difference in physical health between the two groups of veterans in their study, veterans with service dogs reported much lower rates of missed work or on-the-job impairments because of health issues.
“I think there is something to service dogs to be able to change a veteran’s life for the positive,” said Stacy Pearsall, a former Air Force combat photographer and the founder of Veterans Portrait Project.
Pearsall, 39, survived two roadside bombs on deployment and has PTSD in addition to cervical spine trauma, hearing loss and a traumatic brain injury. She received her service dog, Charlie, in December through America’s VetDogs and has already noticed big differences in her daily life.
“The people I work with consistently have noticed a change in my demeanor,” she said. “I think he mitigates so much stress that I don’t have a chance to be triggered as often, or when I am triggered, he’s there to support my calm down a lot quicker.”
The black labrador, whom fans of TODAY may recognize as the show’s “puppy with a purpose” last year, helps calm Pearsall when she has nightmares and alerts her when someone is approaching from behind. This has helped reduce Pearsall’s stress level, which has, in turn, reduced her seizures — from one or two a week to only two in two months, she said.
“While every day presents a new challenge, Charlie is an integral part to maintaining peace and well being,” she said.
The Purdue study represents one of the largest evaluations of human-animal interaction and the largest of any published research on the efficacy of service dogs for PTSD, according to researchers. Veterans who submitted self-reported data also provided saliva samples that O’Haire and Rodriguez plan to use in a subsequent study.
“These samples will allow us to measure a hormone called cortisol, which is an objective, physiological measure of stress,” Rodriguez said in an email. “We are excited to see how this unbiased physiological data compares with our conclusions from the self-report findings.”
Meanwhile, Dexter and Pearsall hope their anecdotal evidence can help make a difference.
“For those who are maybe skeptical (of) service dogs as, say, a prescription to these ailments — for me, pharmaceuticals had little impact on me when it came to treatment (of) post traumatic stress,” Pearsall said. “I hope that more will take notice of the positive impact that service dogs like Charlie can have.”
“Not only did (Captain) save my life, he’s made it better,” Dexter said. “He made it better than I ever thought it could be.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.