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Assistance dog support is trialled for veterans with PTSD

This image shows Dr Pauleen Bennett with one of her canine colleagues.

Dr Pauleen Bennett with one of her canine collegues.

DVA has engaged La Trobe University, in partnership with the Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs of Australia, to trial the potential for dogs to provide assistance to veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a supplement to clinical treatment.

The four-year, $2 million trial will make use of Australia's first dedicated human–dog interaction laboratory, based at the university's campus in Bendigo, Victoria.

The specialist in human–animal relationships who heads the laboratory, Dr Pauleen Bennett, observed that research from around the world has shown that dogs could have a profound impact on the lives of veterans with PTSD.

'But the research is kind of patchy', Dr Bennett said. 'We think it's all about matching up the right dogs with the right people, and so our research is very much focused on that.'

The research will establish best practice in the training, selection and monitoring of assistance dogs.

Unlike pets or companion dogs, assistance dogs are specially trained to perform tasks that contribute to the clinical recovery goals of their handlers. Such tasks may include waking a handler who is experiencing a night terror or nuzzling their handler to distract them from emotionally disabling symptoms.

The trial dogs will be purpose bred and raised. Their socialisation will begin as pups, in the care of a breeder, and continue for nine months while each dog is fostered by a university student or staff member.

'We're trying to make sure that they have positive experiences every single day of their life up until the point where they get placed with somebody', Dr Bennett said. 'They should be the most perfect, stable, sensible dog.'

The selection process for veterans to participate in the trial will start in 2019. Trial team members will work with each veteran for 12 months to train them to manage their future dog. This will include sessions with fully trained therapy dogs.

Each veteran will then be matched with their own dog and spend three months working closely with it under the supervision of the trial team. Less intensive monitoring of progress will take place over the remainder of the trial.

'It's about trying to follow them over a period of a few years to make sure that everything works out positively in the end,' Dr Bennett said.

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