Study Pairs Veterans and Shelter Dogs To Ease Transition Home for Veterans

Of the 2 million United States Service members that have been in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s estimated that up to 50 percent experience combat-related issues ranging from substance abuse to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now, a University of Missouri professor is conducting a unique study that will give military veterans a “training buddy” to help them cope while helping shelter dogs become more adoptable. The Central Missouri Humane Society is supplying the dogs involved in the study.

The University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) has been supported and funded through a series of grants from Mars Petcare (the WALTHAM Foundation, PEDIGREE Foundation and Banfield Charitable Trust) and the MU Research Board, to conduct a study of the mutual benefit of veterans training shelter dogs. Researchers hope this partnership between man and animal will make the dogs better family members and assist the veterans’ adjustment after returning home.

“Health professionals are seeing increasing reports of combat-related stress in returning veterans,” said Rebecca Johnson, director of ReCHAI and associate professor for the MU Sinclair School of Nursing and College of Veterinary Medicine. “This study benefits both ends of the leash, because we know that interaction with animals relieves stress and lessens symptoms of depression and anxiety. Not only will veterans help dogs exercise and receive necessary training, but the dogs will potentially provide stress relief for the veterans.”

The three-phased study, which started in early 2011, will be conducted in two locations in Missouri, namely Columbia and Springfield over a two-year period. Veterans are learning to train dogs in basic obedience in the first phase of the program. In phase two, veterans will be mentors to families who adopt shelter dogs. In phase three, the best of the trained dogs will be trained as PTSD service dogs to work with soldiers who need this assistance.

“To be able to train a dog that will ultimately help someone else is incredibly rewarding,” said Joe Simpson, a veteran of the Iraq war who is training the dog, Tiddly, for the study. “Tiddly’s taught me patience, and I’ve seen an improvement in my daily attitude. She is great to come home to and always gives me a boost.”

Dogs provide unconditional acceptance and love to the veterans who are training them. “People with military backgrounds possess excellent discipline skills and will be dedicated to the training. Because of their skills, they will be creating “super dogs” to be adopted by military and civilian families. Trained shelter dogs are better adoption candidates; many dogs will potentially benefit from this study.” said Johnson.

Mars Petcare is committed to making ‘A Better World for Pets™’. Extending the benefit of human-animal companionship to a broader community and to help build the evidence base underpinning animal assisted intervention, Mars Petcare has formed a partnership with the Eunice Shriver Kennedy National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to encourage peer-reviewed research into human-animal interaction.

“The great care taken by all parties involved in this study to adhere to a strict scientific protocol will help us properly evaluate and robustly demonstrate the value of this program to both the veterans and the shelter dogs, bringing mutual benefit to both,” said Sandra McCune, manager of Mars’ research program on human-animal interaction based at the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition in the U.K.