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Health Services Research & Development

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2017 HSR&D/QUERI National Conference Abstract

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4080 — Freedom on a Leash: Perceived Benefits of Service Dog Therapy among Veterans with PTSD

Lead/Presenter: Katinka Hooyer
All Authors: Hooyer K (Medical College of Wisconsin) Ertl K (Zablocki VA Medical Center and Medical College of Wisconsin) Bobot L (Hounds and Vets Empowered Now (HAVEN)) Jelacic N (United States Air Force and Medical College of Wisconsin) Whittle J (Zablocki VA Medical Center and Medical College of Wisconsin)

Many Veterans with treated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) use alternative therapies for persistent symptoms. We conducted a mixed methods study to identify perceived benefits and attributes of a service dog program.

We partnered with Hounds and Vets Empowered Now (HAVEN). HAVEN matches Veterans to dogs that have no training. The Veteran trains the dog with weekly supervision by a dog trainer without mental health (MH) training. We enrolled consecutive Veterans with PTSD treated at one VA Medical Center who used HAVEN. We gathered baseline utilization data by chart review and conducted one semi-structured interview with each Veteran. The first two interviews were inductively coded by two trained qualitative researchers; subsequent interviews were coded and thematically analyzed by study anthropologist (KH) and cross-checked by another study researcher (KE). The study anthropologist conducted observations of 9 training sessions.

We enrolled 10 Veterans (70% male) ages 31 to 71 years. During the 12 months prior to the program, 9 Veterans had 10+ individual MH visits, 6 had 10+ group visits, 4 had participated in Cognitive Processing Therapy, and three had inpatient MH treatment. No dog had achieved certification as a service animal. In all interviews, benefits linked to calming anxiety, socialization, and a renewed sense of purpose emerged. Veterans related these benefits to providing routine care, as well as individual and group training activities. Veterans reported their dog provided personal safety, companionship, and unconditional love, enhancing their sense of self-worth and joy in life.

In addition to PTSD symptom reduction, this program enhanced self-efficacy and well-being, even though the dogs did not function as service dogs, suggesting these benefits were due to ownership and training rather than the dogs' designation. Studies of the benefits of dogs should incorporate these considerations into their design.

Owning and training a dog may provide Veterans with benefits not captured by standard PTSD symptom assessments or treatments. Dogs can provide social mobility where Veterans are "able to go out and do things" because the dog is "keeping watch," allowing the Veteran to "relax and actually pay attention" to the people and activities that make life "worth living."