OHS Canada Magazine

Mixed reaction greets report on service dogs for veterans, first responders

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August 29, 2017
By Jeff Cottrill

Health & Safety annex first responders Health and Wellness occupational health and safety post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD veterans

Ongoing study measuring efficacy of psychiatric service dogs

(Canadian OH&S News) — A research team working on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) recently released the early results of an ongoing pilot study on psychiatric service dogs for military veterans and first responders — but the report has disappointed a few service-dog advocates.

Published in the International Journal of Neurorehabilitation in June, the article was part of a project conducted by Laval University in Quebec City, to inform VAC on the effectiveness of mental-health service dogs for vets and first responders with operational stress injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The article identified nine positive effects of psychiatric service dogs, including detection, prevention and control of crises and nightmares, improved sleep and moods, better concentration and improved self-confidence. The report also pointed out two “undesirable events” that result from using service dogs: difficulty accessing public places and stigmatization.

“This became an issue for us a few years ago, when it became clear — really, from veterans themselves — that mental-health service dogs became an emerging area of interest,” said Dr. David Pedlar, VAC’s director of research. “It’s a broad area that had had limited attention.”

The first step, Dr. Pedlar explained, was to initiate an evidence review, which was conducted by James Gillette, a researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “It concluded that there was very limited evidence to provide guidance to the department or organizations, like Veterans Affairs, that would be interested in exploring policy development in this area.”


He added that the June report was just the first part of the study, of which the full first phase should be completed this fall and the final conclusions are expected next year.

“The focus of that work was to help build a logic model, so that we could better understand the contexts of psychiatric service dogs,” said Dr. Pedlar. “That was based on interviews with stakeholders, and that included veterans themselves who are dog owners, service-dog trainers, veteran advocates.” The team also consulted medical doctors and members of the Canadian General Standards Board.

One stakeholder who was dissatisfied with the preliminary results was Medric Cousineau, a co-founder of Paws Fur Thought, a Nova Scotia volunteer organization that pairs mental-health service dogs with veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD. Cousineau lamented the inclusion of the “undesirable events,” which he considers “societal issues,” rather than indicators of the effectiveness of service dogs.

“If people didn’t ask inappropriate questions, then there’d probably be less stigmatization and anxiety. If public access was not a problem, there’d be less stigmatization and anxiety,” Cousineau told COHSN.

He added that VAC already knows that psychiatric service dogs work well, but is avoiding the real issues, such as an enormous supply-demand gap. “We already have two-year wait lists,” he said. “They won’t even talk about it.”

Cousineau even speculated that VAC was trying to discourage the use of mental-health service dogs due to pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. “One of the things that they report as one of the nine benefits is the reduction in the use of medications,” he said. “Interesting, eh?”

Another reported naysayer was Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer, another veterans’ advocate. An Aug. 22 CBC News story quoted Stoffer as saying that VAC really needed to educate the general public on the difference between psychiatric service dogs and other kinds of service dogs.

“I would assume that the people who made those assessments don’t have a service dog themselves,” he reportedly said. “They’re not therapy dogs.”

But Dr. Pedlar stressed that the “undesirable events” had been included only to suggest the obstacles and issues that may affect veterans in public spaces.

“Issues like stigmatization, those are also objectives that things like the Canadian Mental Health Commission focus on reducing,” he said. “The stigmatization is more broad. It’s about how the public reacts and perceives mental-health, versus physical-health, conditions as a whole.

“From my perspective, this first piece of evidence is highly encouraging around the efficacy of service dogs.”

More information on the study is available on the VAC website at http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/help/faq/service-dog-pilot-study.


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