Study: Service dogs associated with less-intense PTSD symptoms

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A preliminary study led by researchers at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine has shown that overall symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are less intense among war veterans who have trained PTSD service dogs, according to a Feb. 8 university press release. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute and Bayer Animal Health co-funded the pilot study.

Maggie O'Haire, PhD, assistant professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue's veterinary college, led the study with the help of K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides veterans with service dogs. The pilot research project provides scientific evidence of mental health benefits experienced by war veterans with PTSD who have service dogs.

The 141 participants were veterans who applied and were approved to receive a trained PTSD service dog from K9s For Warriors. Approximately half the participants were on the wait-list to receive a service dog during the study, and the other half already had a service dog. Results reveal that war veterans suffering from PTSD who had a service dog experienced better mental health and well-being on several measures, including the following:

  • Lower overall symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
  • Lower degrees of depression.
  • Higher degrees of life satisfaction.
  • Higher overall psychological well-being.
  • Lower degrees of social isolation and greater ability to participate in social activities.
  • Higher degrees of resilience.
  • Higher degrees of companionship.
  • Less absenteeism from work because of health issues among those who were employed.

The only areas measured in which there was no substantial difference between the two groups were physical functioning and employment status, according to the study.

Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student at Purdue's veterinary college, was co-author of the study.

"The results have important implications for understanding the specific areas of life that a PTSD service dog may help improve," Rodriguez said. "As the number of service dogs given to veterans with PTSD continues to increase, this is an important first step towards proof of concept that service dogs can actually provide measurable, clinical changes for veterans."

Woman sitting with a dog
(Photos courtesy of K9s For Warriors)

Dr. O'Haire and Rodriguez also said that service dogs did not replace evidence-based treatment for PTSD, nor did they cure it. Although the veterans still had PTSD, they had substantially less-intense symptoms.

"Pairing service dogs with our nation's veterans should be recognized as a significant complementary method of treatment," said Steven Feldman, HABRI executive director, in the release. "The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has cited a lack of scientific research supporting service dogs for veterans with PTSD. This study is a significant step in providing scientific documentation, and I hope the promising results from this study will prompt a renewed focus on the benefits that service dogs provide."

Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s For Warriors, told JAVMA News that his organization helped facilitate the study to take away the VA's argument that there is no evidence for the effectiveness of providing service dogs in the treatment of PTSD.

"Our warriors use fewer services at the VA, so the overall cost to the government is less (than if they didn't have a service dog), and the warrior is not on pills and is alive," Diamond said. "But dogs cost money and are complicated. The VA is a bureaucracy that doesn't want to change; it's that simple."

Leashed service dog laying down in a grassy field
​Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s For Warriors, says his organization helped facilitate the study to take away the Department of Veterans Affairs' argument that there is no evidence for service dogs' effectiveness in treating PTSD.

K9s For Warriors spends about $24,000 per service dog, including for veterinary care once the veteran and service dog are together.

Dr. O'Haire says the data from the pilot study helped secure National Institutes of Health funding to conduct a large-scale clinical trial to further investigate the efficacy and role of providing service dogs for military veterans with PTSD.

Diamond also hopes the research will help validate which service dog tasks are most useful for veterans as well as whether certain veterans benefit more from a service dog. Anecdotally, he has seen service dogs having the greatest impact in the first two to three years after returning from service.

"That's when a warrior learns to get out of the house, how to go to school or work, and participates in society again. They learn how to get up in the morning, eat full meals, and manage their anxiety and fear," he said.

Afterward, about a third of participants no longer need a service dog, another third keep their service dog for its natural life but don't need a replacement, and the remaining third need a service dog for the rest of their life.

The study is published in the February issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, available at

See video: Service dogs can lower PTSD symptoms among war veterans

Related JAVMA content:

Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative launches database (May 1, 2012)