Bringing Dogs to Heal: Care for Veterans with PTSD

It has taken nearly a decade of war--and the lack of a cure for posttraumatic stress disorder--to get officials to study the benefits of giving service animals to mentally ailing soldiers and veterans

  • Gillian Laub for TIME

    Dave Sharpe had trouble leaving his Yorktown, Va., home until Cheyenne helped ease the former airman's anxiety

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    Better than Music and Art
    Mental-health experts have been looking into canine-centric therapies for years. Sandra Barker, a psychiatry professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (and yes, she is used to all the jokes about her last name), published a study in 1998 that found psychiatric patients' anxiety dropped twice as much after spending 30 minutes with dogs as it did following standard therapeutic recreation involving music and art. A 2003 Barker study reported a "significant reduction" in fear among patients awaiting electroconvulsive therapy after spending only 15 minutes with dogs. And in March she published a study detailing the "buffering effect" dogs have on the stress experienced by their human partners, as measured through cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure.

    Given her findings, it's not surprising that Walter Reed and other military medical centers have started stationing dogs on hospital floors to help calm patients. "The potential for animals to be another form of alternative medicine is enormous," says Elspeth Ritchie, a former Army colonel who just retired as one of the service's top psychiatrists.

    With a push from Franken, the VA is planning to place dogs — for which it will pay $10,000 apiece — with up to 200 vets suffering from mental and physical ailments. The Army is considering a similar program. But both plan to use only service dogs trained by groups belonging to Assistance Dogs International (ADI), which represents 73 U.S. dog-training organizations. That's because such a designation gives dogs access to airports, hotels and other public spaces that don't allow common pets. "In a restaurant, you don't want a dog groveling around for a dropped french fry or urinating on the carpet," says Corey Hudson, president of ADI's North American branch and head of Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif. "That requires two years of training."

    Sebastian "Sam" Cila was lucky enough to be given one of the 2,000 or so service dogs that are trained annually in the U.S. The retired Army National Guard sergeant from Riverhead, N.Y., had been through hell since July 4, 2005, when an IED in Iraq shredded much of his left arm. Three years and more than 40 surgeries later, he had to have his left hand amputated. "The loss of my hand put me into a tailspin, and I fell into a deep depression," says Cila, 37. When Gillian, a black Labrador arrived in February, she knew how to do things like open doors and turn off lights. But like some other service dogs trained to detect the onset of seizures, Gillian can alert him to the little things that can trigger panic attacks or angry outbursts that can be tough to control — and help him avoid them. "Now when I feel stressed, irritable or anxious, she definitely relieves all those symptoms," Cila says of his PTSD. "I definitely still have it, but I've learned, with the help of Gillian, how to deal with it better."

    But certified service dogs like Gillian don't come equipped with more PTSD-specific commands than cheaper mutts do. "Your average service dog coming out of these agencies can do 82 different tasks. But if you've got a veteran whose main problem is PTSD, what does turning on a light switch do for him?" asks Jim Stanek, 30, who ended three tours in Iraq with PTSD and now runs Paws and Stripes in Albuquerque, N.M., pairing dogs with mentally ailing vets.

    PTSD-Specific Tasks
    Stanek trains his dogs to perform 10 or so PTSD-specific tasks. Some of them are designed to ease concerns about blind spots, not unlike the way a military unit designates someone to watch troops' backs or to scout ahead. Stanek's 2-year-old Catahoula mix, Sarge, for example, has been trained to check around the corner to see what's in the next aisle at a store.

    Efforts by Stanek — whose group is willing to train a family pet if it meets age, size and temperament requirements — and others advocating cheaply trained dogs just got a boost from the Justice Department. In September it tweaked regulations clarifying parts of 1990's Americans with Disabilities Act. The amendments limit the definition of service animals to dogs. (Sorry, pigs and parrots — although the agency left the door open to miniature horses, in part because they live a lot longer than dogs.) To qualify as a service animal, dogs must be trained to do work or perform tasks like "providing safety checks and room searches for persons with PTSD," the agency noted. But the dogs do not have to be formally trained by an ADI-approved school. Such a requirement "might limit access to service animals for individuals with limited financial resources," the department said.

    The new regulations take effect March 15. And perhaps the sight of seemingly healthy men and women with seemingly run-of-the-mill mutts on planes or college campuses or in restaurants or places of worship will lead to more conversations about PTSD. "People ask about the dog, and it's kind of forced me to talk to them, which is something I didn't want to do," says Stanek. "A comfort comes from having a second set of eyes that doesn't judge."

    This article originally appeared in the Nov. 22, 2010, issue of TIME magazine .

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