Historically, horse or equine therapy has helped recovery from physical and mental impairments including alcohol/drug addiction, depression, trauma, eating disorders and a variety of physical conditions and disabilities.
According to the Army Surgeon General’s special assistant for mental health, Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, M.D., the Army is using dogs “much more” to help soldiers recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Animals are not just cute,” Ritchie said. “They provide support.”
The observation came at a 2010 NAMI Convention symposium on “Veterans and Military Mental Health,” focusing on the needs of returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other veterans.
Ritchie’s statement was consistent with the findings of a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) report released last year, Depression: Gaps and Guideposts, which found that about 20 percent of people living with depression have used animal therapy in treatment, with 54 percent finding it “extremely” or “quite a bit” helpful.
In 2006, NAMI’s Advocate e-magazine published an article noting that although more research was needed, Aaron Katcher, M.D., emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, had found that “social support is a critical variable in the recovery from many serious biological disorders including psychiatric illnesses.”
According to a recent NY Times article, “For the Battle-Scarred, Comfort at Leash’s End”, specially trained psychiatric service dogs are being used for veterans reintegrating into society after discharge from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chris Goehner, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran, reported that he was able to cut his doses of anxiety and sleep medications in half after getting one of the service dogs. He also saw an end to his night terrors and suicidal thoughts.
Under a bill written by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, veterans with PTSD will get service dogs as part of a pilot program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs in an effort to provide more support for animal therapy in severe emotional disorders for soldiers.
The dogs, provided by the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, are trained to help jolt a soldier from a flashback, dial 911 on the phone, and even sense a panic attack before it starts.
The dog also provides emotional comfort, and can help a veteran with a sense of responsibility, optimism, and self-awareness.
The 2010 NAMI convention symposium was broadcast live on C-SPAN. During the question and answer, three psychiatric service dogs named Mozart, Precious and Ozzie, patiently stood in line with their owners, who waited at an aisle microphone for a turn to speak.
The Psychiatric Service Dog Society provides information for persons living with severe mental illness who wish to train a service dog to assist with the management of symptoms.
“One size does not fit all,” said Ira Katz, M.D., senior consultant for mental health services in the office of patient services in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Across the board, more research is needed on evidence-based treatment to provide a broad range of options.