The goal: Understanding how furry friends ease PTSD, TBI

By C.J. LIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 27, 2013

BROOKEVILLE, Md. — They’ve heard the success stories: Veterans with PTSD finally able to sleep, less afraid of going out in public and able to deal with stress better, all with the help of a dog.

Now, a nonprofit group that trains servicemembers with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury to raise future service dogs for wounded veterans is hoping to find out why, in hopes of eventually standardizing the treatment for healing invisible wounds without drugs. The Department of Defense this month awarded a $750,000 grant to military medicine researchers and Maryland-based nonprofit Warrior Canine Connection for a three-year study to understand the science behind why the dogs help troops deal with PTSD.

“So many people say, ‘Oh yes, that seems to be very helpful as integrative medicine, but it can be easily dismissed as warm and fuzzy,’” said Rick Yount, executive director of WCC. “If we can prove with hard science that what we’re doing is effective, nonpharmaceutical [and a] safe, available intervention that can mitigate symptoms of post-traumatic stress, it’s likely it’ll be more widely accepted, and we can benefit more wounded warriors with invisible wounds.”

The study will be done with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the military medical school in Bethesda, Md. Researchers plan to examine changes in the wounded warriors’ physiology, perception, moods and biochemical markers for stress as they learn how to train the dogs, according to Dr. Patty Deuster, a USUHS professor and director of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance.

The study will recruit 40 servicemembers, 20 of whom will undergo WCC’s service dog training program. The other half will interact socially, but not with a dog. Researchers will compare heart rate, changes in response to stress and other markers between the two groups, according to Deuster.

Studies have shown that working with a dog releases oxytocin, a hormone that helps lower stress and anxiety levels and is essential to bonding, according to WCC.

“We think that the dogs are the catalyst that helps release the anti-stress chemistry that improves symptoms of PTSD,” Yount said. “We’re trying to connect some dots that haven’t really been connected. It shows the dogs release oxytocin and now we want to prove cause and effect.”

For Navy veteran Marshall Peters, the golden retriever puppy named Lundy that he’s fostering and training to become a service dog has been key in helping him get over PTSD and severe insomnia.

“When guys are on deployment for six, nine, 12 months, their brain is kind of swamped with cortisol all the time and adrenaline and other things, and your new baseline is that,” said Peters, a service dog trainer instructor with WCC. “Working with the dogs, in my opinion, helps balance that out, kind of create another normal instead of what’s normal on deployment.”

Peters, who served for 6½ years, avoided social situations after returning from deployments. But with the help of Lundy, named after a fellow Navy corpsman who was killed in Afghanistan, Peters is better able to deal with people.

“Issues with isolation kind of go to the wayside,” Peters said. “He’s kind of both a social lubricant and a buffer. Having a very handsome golden retriever walking around, people tend to come up to him. It creates a new level of conversation as before I would actually avoid talking to people. It really helps reintegrate back into that social ability.”

Now, the 26-year-old veteran trains other wounded warriors working with the puppies, directing them to use a cheerful  “Minnie Mouse voice” to praise the dogs — in essence, helping them fake a happiness or confidence they may not feel.

“I learn something from [Lundy] every day,” Peters said. “Working with him, because he’s a 7-month-old puppy, helps me with my patience and my emotional regulation. I can’t really explain it. But there’s something to it, and we finally have the means to study it and quantify it.”

Founded in 2011, WCC uses the service dog training as pet therapy for servicemembers with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The dogs take about two years to train, and are later paired with disabled veterans or work at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, warrior transition units in Fort Belvoir or other rehabilitation facilities.

There are about 35 dogs in training and five that have been placed. The program, which has since expanded to open a branch in the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Menlo Park, Calif., expects to graduate its first class in October.

“To be able to find a treatment, to be able to see [wounded warriors] actually healing and return to normal functioning with something like training service dogs — without medicine — what a wonderful thing,” Deuster said. “They’re using the one thing that makes this very unique, training a service dog for another wounded warrior, where they know they’re taking care of one of their own. They’re helping one of their buddies. There’s that incredible purpose and meaning.”

For more information, visit www.warriorcanineconnection.org.

Twitter: @cjlinSS

Videos, some photos: @mjtibbs

A 7-week-old Labrador retriever puppy curiously approaches the camera at Warrior Canine Connection in Brookeville, Md.

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