Tag Archives: service dogs

Veterans with PTSD receive physiological and behavioral benefits thanks to service dogs

A new study shows how veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs.

This study, led by the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, is the first published research to use a physiological marker to define the biobehavioral effects of service dogs on veterans with PTSD.

The findings were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, and they may be significant as scientific evidence of potential mental health benefits experienced by veterans with PTSD who have service dogs.

rodriguez-ohaire

Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student (left), and Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the College of Veterinary Medicine, look at cortisol samples. Cortisol was one of the measurements used in a new study that shows how veterans with PTSD may benefit physiologically from using service dogs. (Purdue University photo/ Kevin Doerr)

The study was co-funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Bayer Animal Health.  The research was led by Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student, with the help of K9s For Warriors, an accredited nonprofit organization that provides veterans with service dogs. The study also was in collaboration with the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at the University of California, Irvine.

“Our long-term research goal is to quantify how service dogs may affect the health and well-being of military members and veterans with PTSD,” O’Haire said. “This study compared a group of veterans with PTSD who had a service dog to a group on the waitlist to receive one. Our previous research suggests that the presence of a service dog reduced clinical PTSD symptoms and improved quality of life. In this study, we wanted to determine if those beneficial effects also included changes in the physiology of stress.”

“We chose to focus our assessments on cortisol as it is a biomarker centrally involved in the stress response system,” said Rodriguez, lead author on the paper. In this way, the study seeks to improve the understanding of the potential mechanisms for how and why a service dog may help this population.

Cortisol can be measured non-invasively in saliva, which enabled the veterans to collect samples themselves at home immediately after waking up in the morning and about 30 minutes later. This allowed researchers to look at how much cortisol was being produced during the morning. The magnitude of the “cortisol awakening response” has been extensively studied and is used as a metric of the effects of chronic and acute stress. Non-PTSD, healthy adults experience an increase in cortisol after waking up.

“We found that military veterans with a service dog in the home produced more cortisol in the mornings than those on the waitlist,” Rodriguez said. “This pattern is closer to the cortisol profile expected in healthy adults without PTSD. Having a service dog was also associated with less anger, less anxiety, and better sleep.”

O’Haire says, though, while this finding is important, it should be taken in context.

“These findings present exciting initial data regarding the physiological response to living with a service dog. However, the study did not establish a direct correlation, on an individual level, between cortisol levels and levels of PTSD symptoms, and further study is needed. It is important to keep in mind that service dogs do not appear to be a cure for PTSD,” O’Haire said.

The next step, already underway, involves a large-scale National Institutes of Health clinical trial in which the researchers are studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time.

“Our research team will be able to look at morning cortisol levels both before and after getting a service dog to see how these physiological effects manifest over time,” O’Haire said. “The longitudinal nature of this clinical trial should bring about a better understanding of the interrelationships between physiological and behavioral processes, PTSD symptoms, and service dogs.”

She also emphasizes that the participation of veterans in the studies should not be taken for granted. “We are most grateful to the military veterans and their families who have participated in the research thus far,” O’Haire said. “We are honored to be collaborating with these individuals to advance the science behind our interactions with animals and how they affect human lives.”

Source:  Purdue University media release

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Emotional support animals

10+ years ago when I was working as a science manager in a local council, I recall that a member of staff had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant.  Her doctor suggested that she and her husband adopt a dog (which they did) because he felt that caring for the dog would help relieve the anxiety about not getting pregnant.

In effect, her doctor prescribed an emotional support animal.   This is an animal that, simply by virtue of its presence in the person’s life, provides companionship and support.

Such animals have been increasingly in the news for all the wrong reasons.  Untrained animals being brought onto US-based airlines and causing havoc including going to the toilet in the aisles and biting passengers.

Emotional support animals are not trained service dogs.   Whenever an incident occurs that makes the news, it makes life a little harder for people who truly need a service dog.

Denver International Airport

Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal must be trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, be it physical or psychiatric. Disabilities include things like being blind or deaf, using a wheelchair, relying on a dog to remind you to take meds, or having a dog around in case of an anxiety attack.

Under federal law, only dogs and miniature horses weighing less than 100 pounds qualify for the “service animal” designation.

The major airlines are responding with tightened rules for traveling with emotional support animals and I think this is a good thing.

Here are the steps passengers have to take to bring an emotional support animal into the main cabin on one of the three major US airlines:

  • American – Passengers must submit a document signed by a licensed doctor or medical health professional which states that the passenger has a “mental health or emotional disability” and needs the animal “for emotional support or psychiatric service” on the flight or at the passenger’s destination. The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.
  • Delta – Starting March 1, passengers will have to submit three documents if they wish to travel with an emotional support animal. In addition to a signed statement from a medical professional, passengers will have to provide vaccination dates and the contact information of the animal’s veterinarian and sign a statement that claims the animal is properly trained “to behave in a public setting” and take the passenger’s “direction upon command.” The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.
  • United – Passengers must submit a document from a medical or mental health professional which states that the passenger has a “mental health-related disability” and that the emotional support animal “is necessary to the passenger’s mental health or treatment.” The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.

I’m not against the designation of emotional support animals, particularly if a health professional has prescribed one.

That said, let’s be honest that most of us don’t train our dogs to the standard of a service dog because we don’t have to.  Subjecting the traveling public to a dog that you love but isn’t properly trained is just wrong.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Source:  Business Insider

 

Therapy dog vs service dog

There are differences between a therapy dog and a service dog, but the two are often confused.

That’s why I really liked this graphic, produced by the Las Vegas Sun:

Therapy vs Service Dog

The difference between a therapy pet and a service animal (courtesy of the Las Vegas Sun)

The newspaper interviewed Sue Grundfest, Lead Animal Therapist at Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center, for its article.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Quantifying the Effects of Service Dogs for Veterans with PTSD

veteran with dog

 

Researchers from the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for the Human Animal Bond will analyze the influence service dogs have on the lives of military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a unique clinical trial.

According to the United States Veterans Administration, 22 veterans commit suicide each day, and at least 40 percent have been diagnosed with PTSD. The rate could be even higher, as many cases of PTSD go undiagnosed.

Previous studies have suggested that individuals who bond with their pet dogs exhibit elevated levels of oxytocin – sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” because it sparks emotional responses that contribute to relaxation and trust. Additionally, the National Center for PTSD claims dogs can encourage veterans to communicate more through commands and training, and prompt them to spend more time outdoors and meet new people.

These benefits support anecdotal reports that show an increase in the prevalence of service dogs for individuals with PTSD, but scientific evidence examining this growing trend and its effects on PTSD patients is still lacking.

“Many veterans are increasingly seeking complementary interventions for PTSD, including service dogs,” stated Maggie O’Haire, lead researcher and assistant professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue. “Yet, even with the well-meaning intentions of service dog organizations that are working to meet the demand, our systematic review of scientific literature confirms a lack of published, empirical research on the effects that service dogs have on veterans and their spouses.”

To help carry out the study, the research team has partnered with K9s for Warriors – one of the nation’s leading providers of service dogs to military vets suffering from a variety of conditions including PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, or sexual trauma as a result of service post-9/11.

The team hopes to determine what sort of PTSD symptom changes veterans may experience as a result of having a service dog, as well as any effects on social functioning and physiological biomarkers.

According to a university release, standardized survey instruments and objective measures of physiology will be used to track stress and functioning. The researchers will also use a novel ecological momentary assessment protocol to capture the role and function of the dogs in everyday life.

The results will be the first evidence-based data to be published that quantitatively identifies the roles and effects of service dogs for military veterans with PTSD.

The study is unique because it applies research methodology and evidence-based science to an area that has typically relied on emotion, according to O’Haire.

“Without scientifically sound studies that establish proof-of-concept for the therapeutic efficacy of PTSD service dogs, this animal-assisted intervention strategy will continue to be minimized as an unsupported and potentially unsound practice, despite anecdotal reports that the dogs may have a significant impact,” added O’Haire.

Source:  www.laboratoryequipment.com

Brain scans of service-dog trainees help sort weaker recruits from the pack

Brain scans of canine candidates to assist people with disabilities can help predict which dogs will fail a rigorous service training program, a study by Emory University finds.

The journal Scientific Reports published the results of the study, involving 43 dogs who underwent service training at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California.

Dogs with MRI machine

Some of the service dog trainees that were involved in the study pose with an fMRI scanner. (Photo by Gregory Berns.)

“Data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided a modest, but significant, improvement in the ability to identify dogs that were poor candidates,” says Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who led the research. “What the brain imaging tells us is not just which dogs are more likely to fail, but why.”

All of the dogs in the study underwent a battery of behavioral tests showing that they had a calm temperament before being selected for training. Despite calm exteriors, however, some of the dogs showed higher activity in the amygdala – an area of the brain associated with excitability. These dogs were more likely to fail the training program.

“The brain scans may be like taking a dog’s mental temperature,” Berns says. “You could think of it as a medical test with a normal range for a service dog. And the heightened neural activity that we see in the amygdala of some dogs may be outside of that range, indicating an abnormal value for a successful service dog.”

The findings are important, he adds, since the cost of training a service dog ranges from $20,000 to $50,000. As many as 70 percent of the animals that start a six-to-nine-month training program have to be released for behavioral reasons.

“There are long waiting lists for service dogs, and the training is lengthy and expensive,” Berns says. “So the goal is to find more accurate ways to eliminate unsuitable dogs earlier in the process.”

The study found that fMRI boosted the ability to identify dogs that would ultimately fail to 67 percent, up from about 47 percent without the use of fMRI.

“This type of approach is not going to be feasible for individual trainers and their dogs because of the expense of fMRI,” Berns says. “It would only be practical for organizations that train large numbers of dogs every year.”

CCI is a non-profit that breeds, raises and trains dogs to assist human partners. Its service dog program, designed for disabled people, provides dogs to do tasks such as turn on lights, pick up dropped keys, open a door and pull a manual wheelchair.

Golden retrievers, Labradors — or crosses between the two — are the usual CCI service dog breeds, due to their generally calm and affable natures. After the puppies are weaned, they are adopted by volunteer puppy raisers for 15 months, before returning to CCI to undergo behavioral tests. Those that pass begin training.

For the Scientific Reports paper, the researchers taught the dogs how to remain still while undergoing an fMRI at the start of the training program.

The Berns’ lab was the first to conduct fMRI experiments on awake, unrestrained dogs, as part of an ongoing project to understand canine cognition and inter-species communication. In an early experiment, dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One signal meant the dog would receive a food treat, and another signal meant that the dog would not receive one. The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation when the dogs saw the signal for the treat, but not for the non-treat signal.

The researchers adapted this experiment for the current study — the largest yet involving dogs undergoing fMRI. The dogs were taught hand signals for “treat” and “no treat,” but sometimes the signals were given by the dog’s trainer and other times by a stranger.

The results found that dogs with stronger activity in the caudate in response to the treat signal – regardless of who gave the signal – were slightly more likely to successfully complete the service dog training program. However, if a dog had relatively more activity in the amygdala in response to the treat signal – particularly if the signal was given by a stranger – that increased the likelihood that the dog would fail.

“The ideal service dog is one that is highly motivated, but also doesn’t get excessively excited or nervous,” Berns says. “The two neural regions that we focused on – the caudate and the amygdala – seem to distinguish those two traits. Our findings suggest that we may be able to pick up variations in these internal mental states before they get to the level of overt behaviors.”

Berns hopes that the technology may become more refined and have applications for a broader range of working dogs, such as those used to assist the military and police forces.

Source:  Emory University

A girl and her service dog head to the Supreme Court

UPDATE: On 22 February 2017, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favor of Ehlena Fry and her parents. They are not obligated to go through time-consuming administrative appeals with the local school board before suing for damages for the emotional distress she said she suffered by being denied the assistance of her dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder.

Ehlena Fry, a girl born with cerebral palsy, has had her Goldendoodle service dog named Wonder since 2009.  When it was time for her to go to school, the school refused to allow Wonder onto school grounds.

ehlena-and-wonder-2

The case has gone to the US Supreme Court – so that other parents won’t face the same hurdles.

Listen to and read the full story here.

Reporting for Duty – book review

I have just finished reading Reporting for Duty, a coffee table book written by Tracy Libby.  This book is presented well, with small vignettes interspersed with text, photos, and profiles of 15 veterans and their assistance dogs.

Reporting for duty by Tracy Libby

The book’s first chapter explains  PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder, a term that didn’t come into use until after the Vietnam War), TBI (traumatic brain injury), and MST (military sexual trauma) – pretty gut-wrenching content.

The chapters that follow include coverage of therapy dogs in history, prison puppy programs and combat and operational stress-control dogs.  The final chapter is about how dogs read us, with references to the various research findings about canine cognition and the human-animal bond (a favourite subject of mine).

There are many photographs in this book, which are lovingly presented.  It provides a good selection of case studies – veterans and their dogs – with veterans from different wars and each requiring different levels of assistance and support.

But it is the book’s Foreward that will remain with me for some time.  Written by Karen D Jeffries (retired Commander in the US Navy, and co-founder of Veterans Moving Forward, Inc – a charity which will benefit from some of the proceeds of sales), the Foreward contains some sobering statistics and facts:

  • The US Veteran’s Administration is unable to meet the needs of the disabled veteran population
  • More that 540,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD or depression (or both)
  • More than 260,000 veterans have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries
  • Even if all of the service dog organisations currently operating in the United States increased their annual output by a factor of 100, the mental health challenges of veterans would still not be met
  • The present policy of the Veteran’s Administration is to provide service dogs only to veterans with visual or hearing impairment or some selected mobility challenges – a small sub-set of the range of uses and support that can be given by trained dogs

This is a book that is best enjoyed in hard copy – flick through the photos and thank heaven for the people who volunteer, fund raise, and train assistance dogs.

My copy of the Reporting for Duty was provided free-of-charge by the book’s publisher.  I will cherish it as part of my dog book collection.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand