Researchers Want to Know If Service Dogs Can Help Veterans Return to Civilian Work

May 6, 2015

Can service dogs help veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder function in a civilian work environment? Researchers at West Virginia University are trying to find out.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to get interviewees to open up when you first meet them. 

 

“Bella, speak. Oh, inside voices. That’s very good.”

 

Meet Bella, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, and her trainer, Morgan Syring.

 

I caught up with them last week while Bella was showing off her skills to a group of kindergarten students touring the WVU service dog training center at the university’s research farm.

 

WVU Service Dog Program

The service dog program began 10 years ago as a class to give pre-veterinary students the chance to learn about animal behavior. But it now trains dogs for veterans who have both PTSD and mobility issues.

 

Bella retrieves a bottle of water for Morgan Syring at WVU's dog training center at the WVU Research Farm.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The training center has all the things you would find in a typical house, from a living room and a set of stairs to a row of fridges that the dogs can practice opening.   

 

Bella trots over to fridge, pulls open the door and grabs a bottle. She hands it to Syring and closes the door.

 

Customized Skills

Syring says Bella has also been trained to provide a buffer for her person when he’s out in public. 

 

“Her person also likes a lot of space, so she’ll walk around her person to keep like an imaginary bubble around them. So she’ll just circle around her person if he gets uncomfortable,” Syring said.

 

Bella is nearing the end of her training. Dr. Jean Meade runs the service dog training program. She says Bella’s skills will be customized to fit her person’s particular needs.

 

“When he gets stressed, he strokes his beard,” Meade said. “So he wanted us to teach the dog [that] when he started to stroke his beard, to come and put her head in his lap as a calming thing.”

 

Meade said having a service dog can be a transformative experience for a veteran with PTSD.

 

“We have another veteran that could no longer stay in the same bedroom with his wife at night because he would have severe night terrors.”

 

So the veteran wears a heart rate monitor, Meade said.

 

“So that at night when he’s sleeping and his heart rate starts to accelerate, the dog awakens him before he goes into a nightmare, which has really changed his life.”

The service dog training center at WVU's research farm off Stewartstown Road in Morgantown.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Empirical Evidence

Many veterans say that a therapy dog can help alleviate the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Now researchers at WVU are studying whether service dogs might help control the symptoms of PTSD in the workplace.

 

Dr. Meade says, “There’s a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence that service dogs are really helping these folks, but there’s not a lot empirical evidence to support it. And so the VA is waiting for that empirical evidence to make their decision of whether they will fund benefits for psychological service dogs.”

 

“We’re trying to generate that empirical evidence as to whether or not service dogs could help veterans get back into employment and society,” professor Matt Wilson said. 

 

Working with psychology specialists at WVU, Wilson designed a scientific study to examine how dogs in the workplace affect veterans with PTSD. 

So would a therapy dog in a workplace provide stress release to someone that wasn't their dog ... or do you really have to have that bond with the dog to get that kind of a response and benefit.

How the Study Works

During the study, veterans will be monitored in a simulated work environment while they perform mildly stressful tasks. Dr. Meade is also involved in the study.

 

“We have a computer-simulated task that is intended to induce stress. The veterans are hooked up to heart-rate monitors and eye-blink monitors and are asked to do this demanding task and then these physiological parameters are measured,” she said.

 

Two types of tasks will be used. One task is much like a hearing test, where participants are asked to respond to flashing lights on a screen. The other involves completing math problems. 

 

Because it can cost up to $25,000 to train a service dog, Meade says one of the study’s goals is to find out whether a therapy dog can provide that same benefit. She explained that a therapy dog doesn’t require the same intensive training that a service dog needs.

“So would a therapy dog in a workplace provide stress release to someone that wasn’t their dog, it’s just wandering around through the office setting, or do you really have to have that bond with the dog to get that kind of a response and benefit,” Meade said.

 

Project ROVER

The research is part of a WVU project called “ROVER.” ROVER stands for Returning Our Veterans to Employment and Reintegration.

 

Wilson said he is recruiting veterans with and without service dogs for the ROVER study. Wilson also encourages veterans across the nation to complete a survey on the Project ROVER website. Among other things, information gathered through the survey will aid in the design of more studies that focus on the barriers veterans with PTSD face in reintegrating back into civilian life.