Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a prevalent and debilitating disorder that affects up to 31% of military veterans. It drastically impairs mental health and wellness. Veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) often experience PTSD and the optimal means of managing TBI is to treat stress symptoms. However, existing PTSD treatments have limited effectiveness and high drop-out rates. One promising treatment alternative is a service dog. Yet despite their positive reputation in the popular press and anecdotal accounts of their efficacy, there are no published, peer-reviewed, empirical studies on their effectiveness for this population.
To assess this hypothesis, we will evaluate three indicators of mental health and wellness across groups, including: Objective 1: Medical indicators (medication use and number of doctor visits), Objective 2: Physiological indicator (salivary cortisol awakening response), and Objective 3: Self-perception (standardized self-report instruments from other PTSD treatment research to assess quality of life, including anxiety, self-efficacy, suicidal thinking, and family reintegration).
Veterans with PTSD and/or TBI who have service dogs will show better mental health and wellness, compared to those receiving other treatment services, while on the waitlist for a service dog.
Mixed model analyses revealed clinically significant reductions in PTSD symptoms from baseline following the receipt of a service dog, but not while receiving usual care alone. Though clinically meaningful, average reductions were not below the diagnostic cutoff on the PTSD Checklist. Regression analyses revealed significant differences with medium to large effect sizes among those with service dogs compared to those on the waitlist, including lower depression, higher quality of life, and higher social functioning. There were no differences in employment status but there was lower absenteeism due to health among those who were employed.
The addition of trained service dogs to usual care may confer clinically meaningful improvements in PTSD symptomology for military members and veterans with PTSD, though does not appear to be associated with a loss of diagnosis.