AVMA Convention 2024 Daily News Sunday

Facility dogs provide mental, physical health benefits to humans

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From deployed Navy ships to disaster and crisis response units, animal-assisted intervention (AAI) programs using trained service dogs are increasingly being used to support those in high-pressure environments. This trend comes as evidence of the therapeutic benefits of the human-animal bond continues to grow in the scientific literature.

Dr. Todd T. French, a Department of Defense advisor on the human-animal bond, presented the session “There’s a Dog on This Ship! How Expeditionary Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) Are Bringing the Power of the Human-Animal Bond (HAB) to Stressful Environments” on Friday at AVMA Convention 2024 in Austin, Texas.

Dr. French serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Army. Since 2015, he has worked on human-animal bond programs and policies across all military branches. He says using the human-animal bond to promote wellbeing during stressful events is an overlooked recovery resource that may be particularly beneficial in a work environment where mental acuity is critical and burnout is common.

A dog sits with a patient in a hospital bed

The practice of incorporating dogs into crisis response first emerged in 1995 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requested these animals to provide comfort following the Oklahoma City bombing.

Since then, researchers have been investigating service dogs’ impact in this area. In a 2005 study published in Psychological Reports, AAI with therapy dogs showed a statistically significant reduction in stress in as brief as a five-minute interaction with health care workers. Moreover, the interactions improved coping and recovery, enhanced morale, and reduced the effects of emotional distress.

There is now a push among advocates, including Dr. French, for “facility dogs.” These are dogs that are specially trained as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) service dogs and deliver AAI with a volunteer or professional in a residential or clinic setting. The dog must be trained to do specific, skilled tasks in a variety of situations within the facility.

Assistance Dogs International (ADI)-certified facility dogs and their handlers are trained to the same standards as ADI-certified assistance dogs.

A black lab wearing a service vest snuggles up to a person in military uniform
Facility dog Aja delivers some much-needed stress relief to military medical trainees on base in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Todd T. French)

A 2021 study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing that looked at facility dogs showed these dogs can lessen subjectively experienced stress and anxiety after traumatic stress. These dogs are beneficial in courtrooms and among workers in health care, the military, and first responders.

“What we’re finding is that these animals are not just impacting individuals, but groups as well,” Dr. French said.

A recent study from investigators at the University of Arizona showed that the use of psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) for military veterans lessens PTSD symptoms, increases social engagement, and decreases anxiety and depression.

The dogs enable mental health professionals to facilitate conversations and mitigate operational-related stressors through trained and untrained behavior. They also provide an opportunity for One Health collaboration among health care providers.

A yellow lab wearing a service vest rests his head on a human's lap
Facility dog Charlie provides animal-assisted support for Pentagon personnel and visitors. Data show an average reduction in stress of 19.3% following interaction with Charlie. (Photo courtesy of America's VetDogs)

“Veterinary care and animal advocacy has to be written into every part of the policy” for facility dogs, Dr. French said.

That means programs should involve facility leadership and staff to develop animal welfare-centric policies, knowledgeable handlers using positive reinforcement and noncoercive training techniques, predictable AAI environments, and continuous evaluation of the program.

“There are no animal-assisted interventions without animal advocacy, and as veterinary professionals, we need to be involved,” Dr. French said. “We need to be there to verify these programs and have confidence that even though these dogs are working, the dogs can still be dogs.”