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Can Service Dogs Help Veterans With PTSD?

Lauren Silverman

It’s common to train service dogs to help veterans with physical disabilities. But how about helping them with post traumatic stress disorder? The Veterans Administration is launching a major study to find out what effect specially-trained service dogs can have on a veterans ability to cope with life after service. Veterans who already rely on service dogs say the research should have been done years ago.

This story was originally published by KERA News.

At a warehouse in Rockwall, Texas, golden lab Papi tugs on a rope to open a fridge and passes his trainer a plastic water bottle with his mouth.

“Good boy,” Cheryl Woolnough coos.

Woolnough is training director of the nonprofit Patriot PAWS. The organization provides service dogs to disabled veterans. She’s taught Papi to pick up items you drop, open and close drawers and get the phone for an emergency call.

Woman training a black lab to open a refrigerator and retrieve items.
Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA news
KERA news
Cheryl Woolnough, director of training at Patriot PAWS in Rockwall, works with dog Papi before he’s placed with a veteran.

In all, the dogs learn sixty-five different cues or commands. The ones trained to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, learn special tricks. Like how to sweep a house for intruders.

“We teach them something called perimeter,” Woolnaugh says. “Where they go into the house and they check, they just touch all the doors and all the windows.”

These dogs also know how to create personal space for a veteran – by stepping in front or behind the owner to block people from approaching.

Terri Stringer, the assistant executive director of Patriot PAWS says almost all the veterans who apply for a service dog have post-traumatic stress disorder, often on top of physical disabilities.

“We have 100 veterans on our waiting list waiting for dogs,” Stringer says. “So we have to get more dogs.”

She’s standing in an open field next to a pond where they’ll start building dozens of new kennels in 2016. The training process is long and complex. It starts with puppies – often labs, retrievers, poodles or doodles – just eight to ten weeks old.

“They’ll stay here about a month,” she says. “[We’ll] make sure they have their shots and start teaching them eye contact and simple commands.”

Then, the puppies either go to a “puppy raiser” – who teaches them socialization, by taking them to places like restaurants, malls and on buses, or, the dogs go to prison.

Seriously, Stringer calls it “the big dog house.”

“Prison is where they get their hardcore training, they’re with the inmates 24 hours a day,” she says.

Dog Papi with front paws lifted as if in prayer.
Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA
Dog Papi shows off his ability to pray for veterans.

The inmates help teach the dogs dozens of commands. Patriot PAWS relies on three Texas prisons for the type of intensive training the dogs need to get ready to be paired up with veterans. It takes more than two years and costs more than $30,000 per dog.

The few veterans lucky enough to make it to the top of the list each year get them at no charge.

“A service dog for [post traumatic stress] can actually help you get out into the public, and re-gain some of that independence that you’ve lost,” Jay Springstead says.

Springstead, who lives in Terrell, still has nightmares from combat in Vietnam. He started volunteering at Patriot PAWS after his youngest son took his own life.

“Both my sons were Iraqi combat veterans. My youngest one had severe post traumatic stress. So I’m familiar with the symptoms,” he says. “And I also know how important dogs are to anyone’s recovery.”

Vietnam vet and Patriot PAWS volunteer Jay Springstead with a dog in training.
Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA
Jay Springstead, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD, now works at Patriot PAWS helping pair service dogs with veterans.

Springstead, and many other veterans, are frustrated with the Veterans Administration for not providing financial assistance to veterans who use service dogs to cope with PTSD.

Patricia Dorn is director of Rehabilitation Research & Development at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She says while there’s plenty of evidence on the benefits of service dogs for people with physical disabilities, there’s less research in the area of mental health.*

“We fully recognize there are many people in the community at large that are not happy that the VA is not just making this a benefit,” she says. “But for an agency with [over] 150 hospitals and millions of veterans we serve, we need to have the evidence base to make a determination.”

Which is why the VA is conducting the first ever randomized, controlled trial of the benefits of service dogs for veterans with PTSD. More than 200 veterans from Atlanta, Iowa City and Portland, Oregon will be enrolled.

Much like the dogs at Patriot PAWS, the service dogs in the study will be trained to retrieve objects and block for personal space, as well as turn on lights and sweep a home. Dorn says the dogs will be placed with veterans for 18 months. During that time, and for two-and-a-half years after, researchers will assess quality of life for veterans – how often they’re socializing, how well they’re sleeping, how often they need medical care, etc.

Veteran Jeremy with his service dog Papi.
Credit Patriot PAWS
Veteran Jeremy with his service dog Papi.

This isn’t the first time the VA has done research on the issue. A study was halted in 2011 after two service dogs bit children in veterans’ homes. The current study, Dorn says, has far more safeguards, but will take three years.

In the meantime, veteran Jay Springstead says caring for PTSD service dogs can be expensive, and veterans sometimes get tricked into buying ones that aren’t properly trained. Patriot PAWS is one of a few dozen organizations in the country accredited through Assistance Dogs International, but there’s no standardized training specific to mental health.

Springstead hopes the research shows what anecdotal reports have — that service dogs help recover from PTSD when they could not find relief from other interventions.

*Dorn says many clinical trials don’t meet high standards — for example, they have small sample sizes or lack control groups. 

Lauren Silverman is the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She is also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.