Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen has been fighting anxiety, depression, and memory loss ever since he returned home from Afghanistan. Along with many other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
As part of an experimental program, Simonsen received a service dog, Yoko, from Paws for Wounded Warriors to help him battle the symptoms of his mental disorders. Training dogs to serve veterans with PTSD and TBI is a growing movement in the US.
According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, about 20% of all returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.
Raymond Galmiche, a Vietnam veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2002. For years he had nightmares about his deployments. He attended counseling sessions, but he did not get any sort of relief until he was given Dazzle, his service dog, in September of 2011.
Like all service dogs, Yoko and Dazzle have been trained to respond to the needs of their companions. If Raymond is having a nightmare, Dazzle will lick his face and tap a paw on his chest.
“It blew me away,” Raymond told NBC News. “I can talk with just about any social worker, counselor, my closest friend, a psychologist, and as much as they can get it… the dog looks in my eyes and seems to understand what my real basic need is.”
For a veteran who has had to remain vigilant when overseas, not knowing who or what can lurk around the corner can cause a lot of anxiety. PTSD service dogs are also trained to give comfort to the veteran when out in public.
If a veteran is feeling anxious about entering a space that is unknown, the dog will explore the area and come back, indicating to its companion that the trip is safe. If the veteran feels overcrowded, the service dog is able to provide a buffer, creating distance between the veteran and a group.
Research on the benefits of service dogs for PTSD patients is lacking, and there also is no consensus or accepted standard for these training dogs.
A VA hospital in Tampa, Fla. is conducting a three-year long study with 17 veterans to provide empirical data showing what benefits might exist for PTSD and TBI patients.
The Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) at the University of Missouri (MU) is also conducting its own research. They will soon begin their second session. The aim of the research differs from that of the hospital in Tampa and is conducted in three phases.
Veterans are paired up with shelter dogs to give them obedience training twice a week. Behavior is the number one reason why shelter dogs are returned but the point of the study is “to give the veterans constructive, helpful activity for them to engage in, which is a chance for them to relax and have some stress reduction,” said Dr. Rebecca Johnson, director of ReCHAI.
The second phase consists of veterans calling families that have adopted the shelter dogs that were trained. Finally, for the third phase the dogs being trained are observed for traits that would make them good service dogs. These dogs are then given further training by specialized trainers until they are placed with a veteran. All the while the veterans complete self-reports about the training sessions and their experiences of the various phases.
Hopefully, the research being done by the VA and universities like MU will help better the process by which PTSD patients receive service dogs. No matter the results of the studies, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen and Raymond Galmiche are proof that many returning veterans benefit from service dogs.
“I think there are more veterans out there, whether they are on active duty or not, who would benefit from at least time with dogs,” Simonson told Voice of America.
Photo courtesy AN HONORABLE GERMAN on Flickr.
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