Animal-Assisted Therapy for Veterans: Not Just Dogs

The Chicago Tribune reported last month that The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) suspended what would have been a major research study about animal-assisted therapy, specifically regarding the pairing of service dogs with veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Moreover, “the VA indicated that it no longer will support service dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD,” though they’ll continue pairing dogs with vets who have physical disabilities.

This news has been puzzling and upsetting to many involved and will mean that non-VA efforts will be more needed than ever, as there is much anecdotal evidence, and some scientific, to show that vets with PTSD are significantly helped by having service dogs.

Besides dogs, other examples of animal-assisted therapy species are cats, birds, horses, and dolphins. As stated in an article from Elements Behavioral Health, two of the main reasons various types of animals can be helpful to vets with PTSD are because they demand care—thus necessitating a shift in focus outside of oneself—and they can offer wholehearted acceptance and affection.

More specifically:

In the case of horses, there is another benefit. Anyone who has ever taken a Saturday trail ride has been told to relax because the horse perceives and reacts to the emotional state of its rider. In fact, horses don’t simply react; instead they reflect the mood of the person handling them. If the human’s mood is positive and relaxed the horse will mimic that attitude. Conversely, if the human’s attitude is negative the horse will adopt a negative mood. This can be helpful for the PTSD patient as it helps them to recognize how their own moods and attitudes affect those around them. Many treatment centers use equine-assisted therapy to treat a number of dual diagnoses.

Update, 2022: Below is a brief video clip about equine-assisted therapy for vets.

According to recent news, a pilot program was conducted just this past week in California that offered 10 veterans with brain trauma or PTSD some introductory dolphin therapy.

Finally, although there’s a lot online about animal-assisted therapy for humans, very little is said about human-assisted therapy for animal veterans (i.e., dogs)—perhaps because the latter don’t have enough of a “voice,” online or otherwise. In fact, military service dogs too often return home with “canine PTSD.” This article will tell you more.

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