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Assistance dogs improve mental health of veterans

Nearly half of the Australian Defense Force (ADF) members who transition from the forces to civilian life experience mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or even suicidal thoughts, and almost a quarter of them are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now, a team of researchers led by the University of South Australia (UniSA) has found that assistance dogs used in conjunction with traditional therapies provide the most effective treatment outcomes, with almost 90 percent of veterans reporting improvements in their PTSD, anxiety, and depression one year after being matched to an assistance dog provided by the Operation K9 Program.

The experts used self-reported measures, clinical assessments, and face-to-face interviews with veterans to investigate the value of assistant dogs over time. The analysis revealed that an assistance dog was often seen as a “life changer” and constant companion, and helped returned veterans increase their social interactions. “For many veterans, an assistance dog gave them a sense of purpose and a reason to live,” said study senior author Miranda Van Hooff, an adjunct associate professor of Allied Health & Human Performance at UniSA.

Veterans argued that assistance dogs helped them “reclaim their life,” by offering them independence and a way of managing their fluctuating emotions and other mental issues. Some of the participants described their dog as a “comfort or security blanket,” and one of them said he was a recluse for many years before being matched to an assistant dog. “Now, every day is an adventure, giving me something to look forward to,” he reported.

By demonstrating the power of human-animal relationships, these findings are of particular relevance to policymakers and mental health professionals. “Previous studies have shown that existing treatments for post-traumatic stress among returned veterans are not ideal, with high dropout rates and poor adherence,” said lead author Melissa Sherman, a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at UniSA.

“This study provides clear evidence that assistance dogs can play a key role in a veteran’s recovery from post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions, supporting existing treatments.”

However, since the study was limited by the lack of a control group of veterans with mental health issues not receiving assistant dogs and the small number of participants due to the cost of breeding, training, and matching dogs, further research is needed to assess whether these findings hold for larger cohorts.

The study is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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