Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dogs help veterans cope with psychological war scars

Dogs help veterans cope with psychological war scars

NORFOLK, Va (Reuters) - As the number of veterans grappling with the psychological scars of war mounts, a miniature Australian Shepherd named Jonas represents a newer breed of treatment for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jonas, a peppy 2-year-old, is a legal service dog, trained to scan owner Ian Lord for signs of stress oranxiety and respond with licks, cuddles and demands for pats.

Lord, a 25-year-old Air Force veteran in Norfolk, Virginia, credits his specialized pet with helping him cope with the mental aftershocks of war.

"He makes it a lot easier to recover from a trigger, like sounds of a helicopter overhead," Lord said. "The difference is, instead of getting wound up about it the rest of the day, it's like OK, go outside and throw a ball around, or just cuddle up to him a bit and kind of snap out of it."

The number of veterans receiving PTSD treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs rose from 254,930 in 2006 to 408,167 in 2010, an increase that could continue when 40,000 more U.S. troops return home from Iraq at year's end.

Psychotherapy and cognitive processing therapy, which includes education and awareness about symptoms, are the department's main treatment methods, said deputy chief consultant for specialty mental health Sonja Batten.

But other experimental treatments also are being used, including yoga, acupuncture, meditation and psychological service dogs like Jonas.

"There is an interest in the PTSD community in exploring a variety of different ways to approach the problem," Batten said.

The department doesn't know how many veterans are using service dogs as part of their treatment, and there is debate over whether the approach is beneficial.

PTSD dogs perform an exercise called "backing," where the dog walks directly behind the veteran and provides a sense of protection from unknown, imagined and frightening things, said Lynette Nilan, the department's strategic planning and measurement director.

"You kind of get into this (debate) of, is it in the patient's best interests to deal with those unfounded fears ...(or to) reinforce those fears by having a dog stand behind you to protect you from something that you really shouldn't have to be protected from," she said.


A new study is underway to determine whether psychological service dogs can help veterans overcome PTSD and, if they prove effective, to develop usage criteria and guidelines. The study will aim to pair at least 200 dogs with veterans in Florida and Colorado, Nilan said.

Carol Borden, executive director of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, Inc. in Williston, Florida -- one of the organizations taking part in the study -- said dogs are specifically trained according to an individual's needs.

"We talk to each veteran and find out exactly what their challenges are," she said. "There are multitudes of things we can teach the dogs to do, depending on each individual's circumstances."

Lord, who now works part-time while applying for graduate school, saw four years of active duty as a loadmaster in the Air Force, flying missions carrying troops and cargo into Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding countries.

He said he was diagnosed with PTSD after suffering "almost the stereotypical meltdown" in 2010, when a simulation-style training course stirred suppressed memories of getting shot at in Iraq.

Lord was removed from flight status and later was honorably discharged from the service for unrelated reasons, he said.

Jonas came into his life thanks to his wife Megan, a 23-year-old medical student. She had been training Jonas as a therapy dog for hospital patients, but it wasn't a good match, she said. Hospital dogs weren't allowed to lick, and Jonas did a lot of licking.

The couple noticed Jonas would start cuddling and licking Ian whenever he exhibited PTSD symptoms, such as anxiety, depression and sleeping problems.

That sealed the pooch's fate as a PTSD service dog. His service is prescribed by Lord's psychiatrist, giving Jonas the same legal rights of entry to businesses and public spaces as guide dogs for the blind.

"As soon as people hear he's a PTSD dog, the next thing out of their mouths is, 'Oh, thank you for your service, sir,'" Lord said. "They connect the dots pretty quickly."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)

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