Defense Department finances study that pairs dogs with troops suffering PTSD


The Kansas City Star

GARVEY SCOTT/The Kansas City Sta
Persian Gulf War veteran Chris Kornkven (left) greeted Rainbow, a female Rhodesian ridgeback, as fellow Gulf War veteran Anthony Hardie met Kenji, another ridgeback, and his handler, Joan Esnayra. The dogs demonstrated how they could help troops with post-traumatic stress disorder during a military health research conference this week in Kansas City. Kornkven has PTSD.

Can a canine companion soothe the volatile emotions of a soldier haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder?

It may sound far-fetched, but the Department of Defense wants to find out.

It is spending millions of dollars on medical research projects like this that may yield groundbreaking results but are too speculative for other government agencies to consider.

So the Defense Department is financing a $300,000 study that will pair troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with dogs trained to sense when their masters are about to have a panic attack and give them a calming nudge or nuzzle.

These psychiatric service dogs have been assisting people with a variety of mental illnesses since the late 1990s. About 10,000 such dogs are now in use.

New but preliminary research suggests that the dogs may be particularly helpful for people with PTSD.

And that has the military interested.

“It’s a powerful intervention. We expect a very large effect,” said research psychologist Craig Love.

Love will be conducting the study at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center with Joan Esnayra, founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society.

The two researchers presented their work Thursday during a military health research conference held this week in Kansas City. The meeting featured the findings of more than 300 researchers sponsored by the Defense Department.

Love and Esnayra brought two service dogs with them, stunning Rhodesian ridgebacks that drew the attention of many people at the conference.

“Absolutely beautiful animals. Very well behaved,” said Chris Kornkven, a Persian Gulf War veteran from Helenville, Wis., who stopped to pet the dogs.

“They seemed like they would be really helpful, particularly for individuals living alone,” said Kornkven, who has PTSD. “I think (a service dog) would give them some independence.”

People who use psychiatric service dogs have the same legal rights as those with Seeing Eye dogs to take their dogs into restaurants, buses or other places where animals usually are not allowed.

The dogs can serve their owners in several ways. For example, they can sense when someone with bipolar disorder is becoming manic and give an alert by barking or nuzzling. The dogs also can provide a reality check to people experiencing hallucinations; if the dog does not react to voices, it is assurance that no one else is in the room.

Love and Esnayra surveyed 39 people with PTSD who were teamed with psychiatric service dogs.

Eighty-two percent have reported fewer PTSD symptoms since they have had the dogs, and 40 percent said they were using fewer medications.

“The longer the team had been together, the more likely they were reducing symptoms and medications,” Esnayra said.

But the researchers said they had often faced skepticism from the scientific community about the value of the dogs.

“It’s too touchy-feely,” Esnayra said.

That didn’t deter the Defense Department.

“Sometimes the scientific community is conservative,” said Capt. E. Melissa Kaime, director of the Defense Department’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.

“Where there’s a good idea but not much data, we’re willing to take a risk.”

The Defense Department has measures in place to make sure that innovative ideas get a fair hearing, Kaime said.

When the department sends applications for research grants to its review panels, it deliberately leaves out the names of the scientists and their institutions, so decisions are based on the merits of their proposals and not their reputations.

“It levels the playing field and stimulates creativity and fresh ideas,” Kaime said.

Love and Esnayra received funding for a small, 18-month “seedling” study that could lead to a bigger project if it yields positive results.

Ten troops with PTSD will receive a psychiatric service dog and professional dog training, along with conventional treatment. A comparison group will receive treatment alone.

Every three months, the troops will take psychological tests and have their stress hormone levels checked.

The Defense Department is involved in more medical research — and more kinds of research — than might be expected.

It funds combat-related work on such topics as Gulf War illness, traumatic brain injury and physical rehabilitation. But it also tackles research on childhood asthma, food allergies, osteoporosis and multiple sclerosis, among other maladies.

Advocates for various medical conditions have been pleased with how the Defense Department dispenses its research money. Illness survivors and family members are included on the panels that review grant applications.

The department started its broad medical mission in 1992 when breast cancer research advocates pressed Congress for more funding. Instead of all the money being funneled to the National Cancer Institute, $25 million went to the Defense Department.

Since then, the Defense Department’s portfolio of medical research has grown steadily. Appropriations have totaled more than $5.3 billion.

“Congress has been impressed with how we administer our programs. We’re very efficient,” Kaime said. downloaded 9/8/2009

Mills: In the Northwest, there is a Prison Puppies (Puppies Behind Bars ) program that gives trained dogs to veterans and others who need service dogs. One dog helps a vet go shopping by going ahead and checking around the isle to show that it is ‘safe’ for the Vet with PTSD to go to the next isle. Prisoners also receive a great benefit by caring and training their dog.