Guide, Service and Therapy Dogs Proving Useful in Veteran Rehabilitation

Guide, Service and Therapy Dogs Proving Useful in Veteran Rehabilitation

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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

It has long been recognized that canines and humans share a special bond. No one really knows when or how this bond developed. But it is thought that wolves, attracted by cooking fires, wandered into human presence and were adopted by people over time.

Archeological records indicate that humans were domesticating and even burying dogs in graves between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago. The dogs were buried in the same manner as humans were; some dogs wore artifacts indicating the caring attitude of their human keepers. It is now believed that the domestication of ancient wolves occurred twice – once in Europe and once in eastern Asia.

But no matter how domestication happened, it has been a win-win for both species. Dogs not only provide companionship and affection to their human owners, but they have also proved useful in helping to rehabilitate veterans recovering from combat-related trauma.

Guide, Service and Therapy Dogs for Veterans

Guide, service and therapy dogs have a long history of assisting humans. Guide dogs support blind and visually impaired veterans and are certified by the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF).

Similarly, service dogs assist veterans with severe hearing or physical impairments. Therapy dogs – also known as emotional support dogs – provide care, loving support and a structured environment to many veterans who have had traumatic experiences.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not provide guide or service dogs; rather the VA coordinates with agencies offering canine services. Veteran-owned firms like 1Pet1Vet focus primarily on canine therapy for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There is even a “Warriors and Wolves” Program.

Certified guide and service dogs are routinely allowed to accompany a veteran anywhere. But therapy dogs are more restricted due to their training to remain beside their human companions.

VA Research on Dogs for Palliative Care

There is substantial scientific evidence of the benefits service dogs provide to veterans with physical disabilities, but little research has been done on therapy dogs’ potential benefits to veterans’ mental health. This is a problem because so many veterans returning from war since 2001 have been diagnosed with PTSD.

Fortunately, there has been some progress. For example, a palliative care psychologist at the VA’s Eastern Colorado Healthcare Facility in Denver conducted a scientific experiment on the use of canine palliative care therapy for veterans at the facility.

The psychologist studied the palliative effects of “Waffle,” a therapy dog, on 25 hospitalized veterans. The results were promising and were published in an academic journal.

The findings suggested that the therapy dog had a measurably positive effect on the veterans’ heart rate and salivary cortisol, a biomarker for stress levels. The scientific research adds to the millennia-old anecdotal evidence that dogs can relieve stress in humans.

VA Role in Service and Therapy Dog Management and Research

At present, the VA allows guide and service dogs in its facilities, but not therapy dogs. Under certain circumstances, the VA provides veterinary services and maintenance items for service dogs that are medically authorized to a qualified disabled veteran.

There is a dichotomy in Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1991. The law defines a service dog as any dog that effectively accomplishes tasks for an individual with physical, sensory or mental disabilities.

This differs from the VA policy which, at present, does not grant therapy dogs the same legal status in VA facilities as guide and service dogs. The VA study on the utility of therapy dogs is still ongoing.

Clearly, this definition would include those dogs that are used by vets today for therapeutic purposes. Fortunately, there is the Able Veteran Program, which assists qualified veterans to obtain a therapy dog under the terms of a Trauma Resiliency Program.

In 2010, Congress mandated a VA study of the relationship between dogs and sufferers of PTSD. The pilot program began in 2011 but was suspended when some canine-related challenges arose. The specific challenges involved two study dogs which encountered disciplinary problems in the home environment.

A second study followed in 2012, but it was placed on hold due to some medical and training issues with the dogs. While the specifics of the problems were not noted, it is suspected that the study animals required more intensive training to ensure program success. The current study comparing the benefits of service and therapy dogs is being conducted by the VA Cooperative Studies Program (CSP).

The large numbers of veterans returning from the Global War on Terror with some form of PTSD has spurred renewed interest and further research into therapy dogs. These dogs can perform needed tasks and help disabled veterans remain calm and achieve a better quality of life.

About the Author

Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He is an Assistant Editor for the International Journal of Risk and Contingency Management (IJRCM). He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.