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Psychiatric service dogs: More than “comfort”

2r1There are those who say psychiatric service dogs aren’t “real” service dogs — that, unlike guide dogs for the blind, they merely make their owners feel good and provide nothing more than comfort.

Iraq war veteran Jennifer Pacanowski sees it differently — especially after,  unaware she was going 85 miles an hour on the freeway, a wet nose nudged her elbow, bringing her back to reality.

The wet nose belonged to Boo, a 110-pound Bull Mastiff who warns her when her anxiety levels are rising. Pacanowski slowed down, and lived to tell the story, which is recounted in an article on psychiatric service dogs in U.S. News & World Report.

The article reveals that the U.S. Department of Defense is starting a 12-month study to find out exactly how the dogs help — by comparing soldiers with PTSD who have dogs with a similar group of soldiers without a dog. Researchers will measure changes in symptoms and medication use.

“We want to provide evidence for something we know observationally and help create a movement towards the use of psychiatric service dogs,” said lead investigator Craig T. Love, senior study director at Westat, a research corporation in Rockville, Md. “It’s time to make a change.”

Pacanowski is one of dozens of veterans and others who already know what the study seeks to substantiate.  Boo, only a year old, has been helping her deal with her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — a result of her experiences as a medic in the war — since December.

“Sometimes I forget where I am and will go back to the war in Iraq. He brings me back to reality and makes me realize that I can’t run people off the road. It’s a frequent thing with PTSD to have road rage,” said Pacanowski, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Boo is one of a team of “psychiatric service dogs” being used to help people with various mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and, perhaps most notably, PTSD.

“If a dog observes when a person with PTSD is escalating, the dog will be able to signal that they are escalating and, given it’s so early in process, the person can manage and even prevent the escalation,” explained Joan Gibbon Esnayra, president and founder of the Psychiatric Dog Service Association.

The dogs have been in service for about 12 years and while patients and professionals alike know they work wonders, there has been no real empirical evidence of their value — and, as a result, they often receive neither the respect or funding opportunities of guide dogs.

“A recent survey showed that 82 percent of patients with PTSD who were assigned a dog had a decrease in symptoms, and 40 percent had a decrease in the medications they had to take,” added Dr. Melissa Kaime, director of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP), who spoke at a telebriefing last month. “I fully expect this will be positive trial.”

You can learn more about psychiatric service dogs at the Psychiatric Service Dog Society website.


Comment from cyndi
Time September 4, 2009 at 8:55 am

I am not a veteran, but for the record, my PTSD alerts me before I balck out or fall into a full panic attack, brings my meds and my phone to me (and carries them when we are out.) Without my dog I would be unable to leave my home as was the case for several years.

People that feel a psyche dog is just for feel good are uneducated.