V-PWR 2.0: Best friends forever

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Every day, soldiers risk their lives for a safe and stable world. However, while being deployed many soldiers will witness or experience firsthand events that are deeply troubling. Sometimes these experiences might even be so traumatic that the veteran continues to suffer, even after having returned home. The experience with the associated fears and feelings of powerlessness is being relived continuously. A normal life becomes almost impossible.

Tragically, about 10 - 20 of every 100 veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in any given year. It interferes with their daily lives, and, more often than not, is a serious burden on their families and immediate environment. And even despite numerous therapeutic interventions, almost 20% of these veterans continue to suffer from their condition even after treatment.

Recent research suggests that the interaction with animals might have beneficial effects on the well- being of veterans with PTSD. However, in order to substantiate these findings, it is essential that we come to understand how the interaction between veterans and animals really works. In the short term and in the long term. 

 

Scientific foundation – V-PWR 1.0

 

In September 2017, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine launched V-PWR 1.0 with the explicit aim to determine how the collaboration between dog and veteran really works. This particular aim holds true to this day! What is more, we’ve seen that service dogs create a positive impact and make a real difference to the lives of veterans with PTSD.

However, the positive results we’ve seen to date are based primarily on subjective experiences and self- reflection. This is important, but it makes it difficult to develop a treatment method that is applicable to as many veterans as possible and that is well suited to the individual needs of a veteran and his or her family.

To find the optimal match between a veteran and his or her dog and to achieve the greatest effect, prospective studies in groups of veterans are needed, that allow us to follow veterans and their service dogs for several years. What is more, we need objective measurements and reliable indicators in order to validate the subjective effects.

At the same time, we also want to safeguard the health and welfare of service dogs. After all, these dogs are ‘on call’ with their veteran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To put it simply, the greater the health and welfare of a service dog, the better the relationship between linked.

 

V-PWR 2.0 Towards a sustainable partnership 

 

The focus on our V-PWR 1.0 research was ‘retrospective’, i.e. looking at the influence of a service dog on the well-being of veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD once the relationship has already been established. To that end, the group of veterans with PTSD with a service dog was compared with four other research groups (veterans with PTSD without a service dog, healthy veterans with a companion dog and normal companion dogs).

The question was to what extent did the PTSD complaints decreased and quality of life increased for veterans with a service dog. At the time of the research, these veterans all had had their service dog for some time. By comparing the service dog owning veterans with other groups of veterans and civilians, inferences can be made about the influence of the service dog on veterans with PTSD at home.

While results are being analysed at present, an initial preliminary assessment shows that veterans with service dogs suffer less from PTSD complaints, participate more in social interactions, go outside more, report a better quality of sleep and a reduced fear of nightmares. Their quality of life, or “Quality of Life” (QoL) appears to be improving, and their resilience and confidence seems to increase through interaction with the service dog.

As a next step, we need to determine whether these positive effects also persist in the long term. That is what we call “prospective research”, and we made an initial start during V-PWR 1.0: At the start of each new pairing between a veteran and a service dog, the well- being of the veteran with PTSD was initially assessed both objectively, based on the aforementioned parameters, and subjectively, by means of psychological questionnaires. The service dog was then placed with the veteran, and the relevant measurements were subsequently taken on the veteran and the dog.

In the current project V-PWR 2.0 we hope to follow this initial V-PWR 1.0 group of veterans and their service dogs for several more years. In order to generate even more reliable data, we also hope to expand the group in order to be able to follow more veterans and service dogs for longer.

 

Aging

 

Such a prospective approach should also make it possible to gain insight into the effects of the interaction between dog and veteran in the long term. What is more, we would also be able to map out the effects any changes within the domestic situation might have.

One of these changes that every veteran with a service dog will face at some point or other is the service dog getting old. So what happens when a service dog “retires” and is being replaced by another, younger dog? How does the veteran react to this, and what are the possible effects? And what does this mean for the dog?

We also aim to investigate whether service dogs age faster than companion dogs. Such insights are vital in order to ensure that service dogs stay active and healthy for as long as possible. To gauge the aging process objectively, we aim to use telomere length, commonly used to measure aging in humans and animals ( Jlang,et al, 2017; Kotrschal et al, 2007).

 

Family life

 

What is more, a prospective approach makes it possible to map relevant family dynamics. Conversations with veterans and their family members during V-PWR 1.0 showed that the service dog frequently is of importance to other members of the family. After all, they, too, are confronted with the PTSD symptoms of the veteran, have to be able to deal with it and sometimes even suffer from it.

Partners of these veterans are frequently unable to hold down a job because of the constant care for the veteran. However, to date little research has been done on the influence of a service dog on the family, in particular partners and children.

That is why we also want to involve different family members in V-PWR 2.0. What problems do they encounter, do they experience complaints themselves and how do they experience the interaction with the service dog?

 

Support veterans with PTSD; support V-PWR 2.0

 

The proposed research project V-PWR 2.0 focuses on the concept of One Welfare: the welfare of the animal – the service dog – in direct relation to the wellbeing of the huam, the veteran. Today, and in the long term.

By developing more and better insights, we are working towards sustainably improving the wellbeing of veterans with PTSD as well as safeguarding and enhancing the welfare of service dogs.

Help us. Help veterans with PTSD.