Applied social psychology research aims to advance insights on broader societal issues while – at the same time – helping to improve services for vulnerable community members, says Linzi Williamson, assistant professor in psychology at the University of Saskatchewan. Yet the complexity of psychological conditions, which often come with a slew of additional challenges, can make addressing them difficult.
Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, may experience “comorbid substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, traumatic brain injuries and physical ailments,” she explains. “In some cases, traditional treatments alone – like therapy or medications – can’t get to the heart of the issue.”
There is, however, one intervention where outcomes are often “magical,” she says. “Words like this aren’t typically used in a research context, but that’s how I would describe what I saw working with veterans and service dogs.”
Through a partnership with a veterans’ service organization to study animal-assisted interventions for people with PTSD, Dr. Williamson witnessed powerful transformations. “Some of the stories are from people who started off just hanging out in their basement. They wanted to be in darkness, alone,” she says. “And then, they tell me about taking walks with their dogs or even going on vacation.”
Previously disconnected from their communities and even family and friends, building a relationship with their dogs opened up opportunities to pursue social connection, explains Dr. Williamson. “The dogs are trained to be attuned to the symptoms the individual might experience. With PTSD, this can include emotional dysregulation or heightened stress response.”
Sensing an imminent episode, such as a flashback, for example, the dogs alert the veterans, allowing them to seek help or get to a safe space. For Dr. Williamson, “the dog represents a complement to care, enabling people to engage in other forms of available treatment.
“We also see behaviour change related to harm reduction,” she adds. “As the veterans realized that they depend on their dogs, but the dogs also depend on them, this affected the types and amounts of substances they used. Many switched from heavy prescription opioids to something else, like CBD, to be more present for the dogs.”
The positive impact went beyond the well-being of the dogs’ handlers, Dr. Williamson notes. “In interviews with the veterans’ spouses, they said that with the service dog on the scene, their caregiving and worries had decreased – and the dogs became part of the family.”
Rising awareness of the benefit of service dogs has brought a “massive demand, but dogs have to go through rigorous assessment to ensure they’re suitable for this work,” she says. “They also need extensive training.”
The questions then become: What tools and frameworks can help facilitate successful outcomes? And how can they be made widely available? In the case of the veterans, participants received guidance for training their own service dogs, which served to keep costs down while “strengthening the human-animal bond that is an integral part of this training.
“We have to make sure animal welfare is at the core of everything – and that we empower people to make the best decision for themselves and their animals,” says Dr. Williamson, who contributed nationally to the discussion about the need for Canadian national standards for animal-assisted services.
Hoping to inspire a community of talented trainers, researchers, advocates and policy-makers to pursue stronger outcomes together, Dr. Williamson also has advice for those who are curious about the service dogs they encounter. “In public, the dog can become a bit of a magnet. While some handlers would be happy to answer questions, please ask first or simply let them go about their day.”
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