Devastating injuries can have devastating psychological consequences. Two military physicians report on using therapy dogs to aid recovery.
Therapy dogs can significantly reduce the psychosocial and occupational disabilities resulting from devastating and complex injuries suffered in war.
Reporting in a poster session at the 168th annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Toronto, held in May, Capt. Connie L. Barko, MD, and Ltc. Bryan Bacon, DO, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences wrote about a service member’s recovery.
The patient, a 33-year-old woman, suffered multiple fractures and head injuries, including loss of her left eye, following an attack from a rocket-propelled grenade attack and subsequent motor vehicle accident in Afghanistan in 2010.
After more than 20 surgeries to heal the physical injuries, she was left with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe panic attacks and agoraphobia, major depression, and cognitive deficits resulting from a traumatic brain injury.
The solution came with four feet and a wet nose, the authors said. The patient acquired a trained service dog who accompanied her everywhere.
Her anxiety symptoms became well controlled, leading to less social isolation, and she was able to complete tasks. Her panic attacks decreased in frequency and intensity.
Since the wars against terrorists in the Middle East began, the U.S. military has searched for alternative methods to assist the healing process for complex injuries in the long recovery process. Growing evidence shows that animal assisted activities and therapy with service animals offer physiological and psychosocial benefits. In fact, the US Army’s combat and operational stress control teams have begun using service animals in rehabilitation programs and even deployed them to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Service dogs have long been trained to provide help to people with physical disabilities, such as vision or hearing impairment, balance or mobility, and even sensing blood sugar levels and seizures. They also provide emotional therapy — many studies show that petting a dog can lower blood pressure, for example.
According to the organization America’s Vet Dogs, service dogs are being trained to provide assistance to people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dog skills include turning lights on and off, nightmare interruption, and “go get” in which a dog will fetch another person, phone, medication, or other item. They are also trained to assist with social interactions with commands like “visit” and “shake” that reduce stress from interactions with new people.
“The military’s experience with animal assisted treatments and activities could be expanded to their civilian counterparts to improve occupational performance, psychosocial functioning, and mental health status among patients,” the authors wrote in their poster abstract.