Service Dogs and Veterans: How Canines Help Manage PTSD

Science confirms positive outcomes of service dogs

M.A., Health Writer
James Rutland and Dunkin
James Rutland

"If you do what you've always done, you get what you've always got."

That tried-and-true saying, attributed to American industrialist Henry Ford, remains a mantra for James Rutland, a 12-year veteran of the United States Army. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Rutland is a big believer in making change.

He knows it must come from within. He's also beyond grateful for the support of his nearly 4-year-old canine pal of more than two years, Dunkin, a Rhodesian Ridgeback-Labrador Retriever mix.

With the help of K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit organization in Ponte Vedra, Florida, Rutland has found himself, and his purpose, again. The group provides service dogs, rescued from shelters or donated by the public, for military veterans nationwide who became disabled after serving on or after 9/11.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

A switch flipped

For Rutland, that disability occurred April 10, 2014 when a rocket landed 12 feet from him. A wheel vehicle mechanic, he was repairing a truck near Baghdad, Iraq, where he was stationed.

"I was blown away by a severe concussive blast and knocked unconscious," he told HealthCentral in a telephone interview. "My whole world changed, and suddenly right was left and up was down. A switch was definitely flipped."

He was medically discharged in January 2015 and he was lost, exhibiting little regard for responsibility, and at times, less than tactful. "At first, I wanted to do crazy stuff and just have fun," he says. Then his dark side took over, and he became depressed and hopeless, turning to substance abuse to ease his pain. He was ultimately diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) from the blast, along with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Camp changes his life

Early in 2015, a friend of his mother and a well-known Florida news anchor, Jeannie Blaylock, took Rutland to Camp K9, the campus for K9s for Warriors. That visit made all the difference for Rutland, who decided the program was for him. Fifteen months later, he and Dunkin became a team in April 2016, and after 120 hours of training, Rutland became a Warrior graduate who now teaches students who are just like he was.

"Dunkin knows all my dirty little secrets, and is there to cut me off when I turn into a jerk," says Rutland of his own sometimes-erratic behavior. The dog will stand in front of him, crossing his path of forward movement, and essentially demanding full attention.

"He makes me feel like going out to try new things, and he helps me 'shut down' when I get 'amped up,'" says Rutland, who says he does have a tendency to think, "my way or the highway."

James Rutland and Dunkin on porch.
James Rutland and Dunkin on porch.
James Rutland

Science behind sagas

The story of Rutland and Dunkin is not unique, as heart-warming sagas of service dogs and veterans continue to accrue. Now, scientific evidence supports what so many know to be true anecdotally.

"Many veterans and military members are greatly in need of services," says Maggie O'Haire, Ph.D., associate professor of human-animal interaction at both the Center for the Human-Animal Bond and the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. "Our goal is to give these veterans a voice through science, to validate their experiences, and to provide data in real and measurable ways."

Dr. O'Haire, who spoke to HealthCentral in a telephone interview, takes time to assess what's happening. "The supply of service dogs doesn't meet the demand," she says. "With a wait list of up to two years for a veteran, the practice is outpacing the research."

Service dogs and PTSD

A study by O'Haire and graduate student Kerri Rodriguez — one of the largest studies ever in this genre — was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in February 2018. The authors worked with 141 post-9/11 military members and veterans with PTSD.

"For our most recent study, using over 20 different measures, we found that individuals who had a service dog had lower symptoms of PTSD, had lower depression and anxiety, a better quality of life, and a lower absentee rate at work as a result of their health," she says. "We found a consistently clear pattern, that those who had a service dog functioned at a higher level than those who did not."

Her second study, with results of the first phase just published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, worked with 73 veterans, half of whom had a service dog and half of whom who did not.

"We looked at a physiological biomarker," says Dr. O'Haire. "We collected saliva samples to analyze levels of cortisol, the body's main stress hormone, and the body's awakening response. Healthy adults without PTSD will show a cortisol rise 30 minutes after awakening, but in people with PTSD, there isn't always that same rise due to a dysregulation."

The researchers found veterans with a service dog did actually show that rise in the hormone, on average, while those on a wait list for a dog did not, she says. Service dog owners also seemed to have less anger and anxiety and they slept better.

"Service dogs, however, are not a cure for PTSD," she says.

Maggie O'Haire and service dog.
Maggie O'Haire and service dog.
Maggie O'Haire

Positive partnerships and bonds

The second phase of the research, including a broad National Institutes of Health clinical trial, will look at veterans before they get a dog and follow them for three months, comparing findings with people without a dog.

She's already prepping for another study to identify the best canine characteristics for this job, she says. "We'll be able to look at areas such as temperament and training that may lead to better outcomes."

Dr. O'Haire and fellow researchers know that what they quantify is extraordinarily valuable. But what they hear from grateful veterans energizes them to do more. "When a veteran says, 'Once I had my dog, I could leave my house again, or go to my child's soccer game,' we know we are on the right track. It is early, and we're just 'dipping our toes' into the effects of partnership and the bond that forms."

To fellow veterans reading this who wonder whether a service dog might benefit them, Rutland has encouragement. "If you're thinking about this program, apply. I want you to get out of your head and get back into the world."

See more helpful articles:

Exercise Can Ease PTSD Symptoms

The Best Treatment Options for Veterans Who Can't Sleep

Even a Single, Mild Concussion Could Raise Parkinson's Risk