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Service Dogs Markedly Improve PTSD Symptoms In Military Veterans, New Study Finds

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Last Updated: June 18, 2024 | 7 min read | Leave a Comment

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Ryan and Frankie, courtesy of K9s For Warriors.
Ryan and Frankie, courtesy of K9s For Warriors

After nearly 20 years of service in the Army Reserves, including serving as a truck driver in heavy combat situations during the Iraq War, Ryan Palomba’s anxiety had become disabling. Three months ago, the nonprofit organization K9s For Warriors paired Palomba with Frankie, a service dog specifically trained to assist with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Within the first few days, Palomba could already tell that Frankie was making a significant impact in his daily life by helping to alleviate his anxiety.

Anecdotal evidence of the benefits of pairing service dogs with military veterans abounds, but now solid scientific research confirms that these dogs provide invaluable psychological therapy for those suffering from PTSD. Results from a large-scale clinical trial comparing veterans with and without service dogs demonstrate the overwhelmingly positive benefits that these canines provide for PTSD-stricken veterans.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study, published in JAMA Network Open on June 4, found that service dogs significantly lowered the severity of veterans’ PTSD symptoms, the odds of a PTSD diagnosis, and other negative mental health symptoms due to emotional trauma from combat violence.

Key Study Findings

Ryan and Frankie the dog hugging up close courtesy of K9s for Warriors.
Ryan and Frankie, courtesy of K9s For Warriors

Dr. Maggie O’Haire and her research team (the OHAIRE Group) of the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, in partnership with K9s For Warriors, conducted the largest nationwide study comparing military members who had service dogs to those who were undergoing standard PTSD treatment without a trained canine companion. It involved more than 150 veterans over three months.

Researchers recruited participants through K9s For Warriors’ database of veterans suffering from PTSD — 81 veterans were paired with psychiatric service dogs (coined the intervention group), and the control group included 75 members. All had unrestricted access to standard PTSD treatment throughout the trial. Researchers analyzed both self-reported symptoms and expert clinician assessment for PTSD, anxiety, and depression symptoms along with social health and quality of life.

It’s also the first such study to utilize gold-standard, blinded clinician ratings of PTSD to measure outcomes. Researchers were careful to structure this study so that clinician raters weren’t aware of the study topic (service dogs), design, timing (baseline or follow-up), and whether participants were part of the intervention group (those with service dogs) or the control group.

Sarah Leighton, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Arizona and the paper’s first author, says the results after the three-month trial were encouraging.

“Overall, we found the most comprehensive evidence to date supporting service dog partnerships for veterans with PTSD,” she says. “We saw better outcomes in the service dog group in nearly every area we measured. This is particularly notable given the short time frame. Service dog partnerships can last a decade, but we’re already seeing significant change after just three months of partnership.” Leighton highlights their findings.

PTSD Symptoms

  • The percentage of participants receiving a clinician PTSD diagnosis was 75% in the intervention group compared to 85% in the control group.
  • Study participants in the service dog group scored about 11.5 points lower on a self-report PTSD symptom severity measure (range: 0-80, where higher scores = worse symptoms).

Anxiety

  • The probability of meeting the cutoff for generalized anxiety disorder at 3 months was 48% in the intervention group, compared to 78% in the control group.
  • Participants in the service dog group scored about 4.4 points lower on self-reported anxiety, where a 3-point change is considered the “minimally important difference.”*

Depression

  • The probability of meeting the cutoff for at least mild depression was 76% in the intervention group, compared to 88% in the control group.
  • Participants in the service dog group scored about 3.3 points lower on self-reported depression, where (again) a 3-point change is considered the “minimally important difference.”

*Minimally important difference (MID) refers to the amount of change that a patient or clinician would consider significant, which might warrant a change in how the individual’s care is managed.

How Do Service Dogs Help People With PTSD?

Ryan and Frankie the dog in parking lot courtesy of K9s for Warriors.
Ryan and Frankie, courtesy of K9s For Warriors

PTSD service dogs go through intense specific training to help those affected with PTSD. The ultimate goal is to instill a daily sense of safety, confidence, and independence for veterans. Here are some of the many ways psychiatric service dogs help military members.

  • Apply pressure to alleviate anxiety
  • Nudge to interrupt flashbacks
  • Gently wake up handlers from nightmares
  • Help with feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Serve as a physical barrier between veterans and approaching strangers in public
  • Provide a cushion to create a sense of security in crowded places 
  • Retrieve medication or remind handlers when to take it

In this study, all the K9s For Warriors service dogs had received 60 hours of specialized training for PTSD-related skills, including interrupt or alert to anxiety, calm or comfort anxiety, block (create space), cover (watch back), and make a friend (social greeting). Nearly 60% of dogs were mixed breeds, and the most common pure breed was the Labrador Retriever (22%).

Ryan Palomba’s Story

As a truck driver in the Army in Iraq in 2005-2006, Staff Sergeant Ryan Palomba drove nearly 30,000 miles in combat situations for a year. He and his fellow military members were consistently under extreme fire. Although the semi-truck he drove was fully armored, the constant barrage of bullets, RPGs, hand grenades, and exploding IEDs took its toll on his mental health. He and his company also experienced random mortar and rocket attacks at their base, LSA Anaconda (Balad Air Base).

While Palomba didn’t participate in this study, he is part of the K9s For Warriors family and can testify to the importance of service canines. In March, he and his service dog Frankie became the 1,000th Warrior/K9 team to ‘graduate’ from their program that teaches veterans how to work with their paired service dogs. He’s eager to share his experiences and help bring as much attention to the benefits of these dogs as possible. “I know they can do a lot of good for veterans out there that are struggling, most silently,” says Palomba.

How Frankie Helps Palomba

Ryan and Frankie the dog in parking lot courtesy of K9s for Warriors.
Ryan and Frankie, courtesy of K9s For Warriors

It’s only been a few months since Palomba has had Frankie, but he says the canine’s support is already making an impact on many areas of his life, including being out in public, going to work, and with his family.

Frankie helps redirect me when my anxiety is high. He will stare at me with what we call his “crazy eyes” that tell me he is focused on me because my anxiety is high,” explains Palomba. “If I don’t let him work and calm me down, then he will audibly alert me by barking at me. It draws my attention to him instead of whatever is causing me to be anxious.

– Ryan Palomba, Retired Army Staff Sergeant 

He also shares how Frankie has improved his interactions with his wife and kids. “My emotional range for my family was limited, usually causing my fuse to be shorter and me to be generally more grumpy, tired, or frustrated. This would cause me to lash out at my family or take out my frustrations on my kids by yelling over small things,” says Palomba.

However, he explains that having Frankie there for him in emotionally trying situations has allowed him to gain back emotional bandwidth to be there more for his family. “I am able to be more emotionally aware of myself and my family members. I am able to interact with them in a much calmer way and productive way.”

Palomba points out that a service dog is not a miracle cure for PTSD. “It’s a tool we can put in our mental health toolbox, right next to talking to a therapist, opening up to those we have good relationships with, and my relationship with God. But I thank God every day for K9s for Warriors increasing my toolkit and the gift they have given me in Frankie.”

About K9s For Warriors

K9s For Warriors is the nation’s largest provider of trained service dogs to military veterans suffering from post-combat mental health issues. The nonprofit organization trains rescue dogs for around six months and pairs them at no cost with veterans at a high risk of suicide and other severe PTSD symptoms. It gives both veterans and dogs a “new leash on life.” The organization has rescued more than 2,000 dogs and paired more than 1,000 veterans with highly trained service dogs.

Why Is This Research So Important?

Leighton, who has been in the service dog industry since 2010 and has worked with the OHAIRE Group and Dr. O’Haire (the study’s principal investigator) since 2021, explains the importance of their team’s ongoing studies into service dogs and veterans.

Research enables us to translate peoples’ lived experiences into actionable data, and to amplify the voices of veterans and their families through science. This work is essential for improvements to policies, funding, and access.

Service dogs are in high demand; waitlists are extremely long, yet funding is limited due to limited data. Policymakers, clinicians, and the public need robust scientific evidence to understand what to expect from service dog partnerships – at the same level as the evidence behind any other health intervention.

– Sarah Leighton, Lead Author of Service Dogs for Veterans and Military Members With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Leighton shares that the OHAIRE Group is currently midway through their next study, a gold-standard NIH-funded clinical trial, to confirm these findings in a randomized design. “This will help us establish causation. In other words, service dog partnerships cause X, Y, Z; as opposed to service dog partnerships are associated with X, Y, Z,” she says.  

Next, they’ll investigate how service dog partnerships combine with evidence-based, frontline PTSD treatments through a Department of Defense-funded randomized clinical trial. “Specifically, we’ll learn whether trained service dogs can help veterans overcome the stresses and challenges that are involved in Prolonged Exposure therapy to increase treatment completion and achieve better health outcomes,” Leighton explains. “Ultimately, the future of our research is to move beyond the binary of whether or not service dog partnerships work to understand for whom and under what circumstances service dog partnerships are most effective.”

Could You Benefit From A Service Dog?

Military veterans aren’t the only ones who benefit from the support of our furry friends. If you suffer from mental health issues, you may be able to qualify for a trained dog to help you cope with daily life. Learn more about psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs).

Why Trust Canine Journal?

Sally has over 20 years of experience in human health sciences communications, including 10 years as an expert on pet health conditions and treatment. She’s an avid enthusiast and researcher of the latest scientific studies on all things canine. Sally is part of a team of canine professionals and long-time dog owners who stay on top of the most helpful research, best products, and more for our own pups and those of all of our readers.

The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

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