Purdue Sniffing Out the Science of PTSD Service Dogs

Posted: Updated:
K9s For Warriors will invite veterans nationwide with PTSD to be part of the Purdue study. K9s For Warriors will invite veterans nationwide with PTSD to be part of the Purdue study.

After post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) left U.S. Army veteran Bryan Foltz suicidal, “numb” and paralyzed by paranoia, he now says “I’m a different me.” But it wasn’t therapy or medication he credits for saving his life; he says his service dog rescued him from “dark and scary” days. However, the voices of veterans have little validity in the world of scientific research, which has led a Purdue University professor to conduct the first clinical trial to examine the physiological impact of PTSD service dogs.

“Although we see these positive stories, we don’t have any scientific evidence behind this. There’s a real push for evidence-based treatment, and [PTSD service dogs] wouldn’t fall into that category at the moment,” says Purdue Assistant Professor of Human-Animal Interaction Dr. Maggie O'Haire. “There are really long waiting lists for these dogs, because there aren’t resources to support more dogs; there isn’t that support without the scientific evidence behind it.”

While the duties of psychiatric service dogs may be less visible than guide dogs, for example, they’re trained to help relieve the symptoms of panic or anxiety, such as waking their handlers from nightmares and creating physical space around their handlers in public to help them feel safe.

Foltz’s battle with PTSD was triggered by a deadly Humvee accident in Iraq; as he was driving a security escort mission, the vehicle slid out of control and wrecked. His interpreter and friend died in the accident, and Foltz was ejected from the Humvee, breaking his leg and suffering a traumatic brain injury.

Before getting his PTSD service dog, Dell, Foltz was on 18 medications, sleepless due to recurring nightmares and trapped by fear in his home—even unable to walk down a grocery store aisle without feeling the panic of “a chokepoint.” Foltz says Dell has transformed his life; he’s trained to wake him from nightmares, stop oncoming panic attacks by licking and comforting Foltz and provide “cover” in public—facing behind Foltz to alert him of approaching people.

While Foltz says “it’s obvious [service dogs] work,” he’s hopeful this first clinical trial of its kind will make the animals more accessible for veterans with PTSD.

“It’s almost like we have to have science to prove our fingers exist,” laughs Foltz. “I think it’s phenomenal these steps are being taken to show others it’s just not an emotional thing; there’s actually a psychological change that goes along with this.”

But also physiological, and that’s the focus of O’Haire’s study, making it the first to analyze the body’s physical response to PTSD service dogs.

“We will use the same measures that are used in clinical trials of other treatments for PTSD—such as medication trials and cognitive behavioral therapy trials, so we can compare directly: when you use the exact same measure, this is the effect of a service dog compared to something else,” says O’Haire. “So we can raise [service dogs] to the rigorous standards that are applied across other treatment research.”

The two-year trial is also the largest to date, involving 100 veterans throughout the country with PTSD: 50 who receive service dogs during the study and 50 who do not. The data will track salivary cortisol, an indicator of stress, and electrodermal activity (EDA), a skin-based measure that can indicate panic-like symptoms. The study will also track sleep for the veteran and dog, evaluating its quality and measuring co-regulation, meaning the human and dog are sleeping and waking at the same times.

The research will collect data from the veteran before receiving the dog, including PTSD treatments already underway, such as medication or behavioral intervention services. That baseline will then be compared to the results after receiving a service dog.

O’Haire notes such “fancy physiological measures” are expensive to collect—another reason why there’s little scientific evidence about the impact of PTSD service dogs. O’Haire says $525,000 in funding for her study from the National Institutes of Health and Merrick Pet Care is “hugely significant.”

“I hope the impact will be rigorous research findings that people can evaluate and trust,” says O’Haire. “This could give a voice to those who have had dogs, so they can share with people—in a language based in science—what can happen if you have a dog.”

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs currently doesn’t cover the cost of service dogs for mental health conditions, including PTSD, because “there is not enough research yet to know if dogs actually help treat PTSD and its symptoms.” Foltz is hopeful the study will help provide evidence of what he already knows: Dell saved his life, his marriage and his relationship with his children.

“I’m on zero medications now. I wasn’t productive at all [before Dell], and now, I’m in my third year of law school. I didn’t have a relationship with my kids, and now, I spend every moment I can with them; we laugh and play,” says Foltz. “Dell provides me security I didn’t have before; I know someone’s always got my back. He just happens to be a dog.”  


 

  • Perspectives

    • The Power of Partnerships

      You can't go it alone in tech. All technology companies, regardless of their segment, live in an ecosystem comprised of organisms of varying complexity. More mature companies in established categories can function at the top of the food chain, consuming smaller companies through acquisition, but startups are seldom if ever in a position to gain dominance through acquisition. It’s vital for the success of a startup to be able to play well with others...

    More

Subscribe

Name:
Company Name:
Email:
Confirm Email:
HTML
INside Edge
Morning Briefing
BigWigs & New Gigs
Life Sciences Indiana
Indiana Connections
INPower
Subscribe
Unsubscribe

Events



  • Most Popular Stories

    • Liberty Mutual Plans 400 New Carmel Jobs

      Boston-based Liberty Mutual Group Inc. is planning to add up to 400 Carmel jobs as part of a $14 million expansion plan. The insurance company has a global presence and currently employs 1,430 in central Indiana. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. says the new jobs, expected to be created by 2021, will pay more than the state and Hamilton County average wages. Plans call for Liberty Mutual to lease...

    • Indiana Included Among 'Least Tax-Friendly States'

      A personal finance magazine has ranked Indiana among the 10 least tax-friendly states in the country for retirees. The ranking is part of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance's 2017 Retiree Tax Map, which compares all 50 states on senior tax breaks, as well as taxes on income, property, everyday purchases and estates.

    • Schools Recognized Among Best For Military Students

      Two Indiana schools are ranked among the best colleges for veteran, active-duty and military dependent students. The Military Times Best: Colleges 2018 rankings are determined by a survey that assesses the veteran and military student services and rates of academic achievement of more than 600 colleges throughout the country.

    • Vote on North River Property Deal Delayed

      The Fort Wayne City Council has delayed a vote on whether to purchase a 29-acre property near the city's downtown. Our partners at WPTA-TV report some members of the council are concerned about the more than $4 million deal, as the city will not know the results of an environmental study until after the transaction is complete. The city has called the property, which served as the site of a former OmniSource scrap yard, as an "important gateway to downtown."

    • Purdue Startup Scores Federal Funding

      The National Science Foundation has awarded a $750,000 grant to a Purdue University-based tech startup. The university says the funding will help Perceive Inc., which is located at the Anvil coworking space on the West Lafayette campus, further develop its automated customer service coaching software.