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Purpose-raised puppies key to assistance dogs trial

Two black labradors pups not more than a year old. One sits looking directly at the camera. The other looks off to the right and is wearing a gopro. Both have collars and yellow leashes.

Two of the dogs being used in the trial of assistance dogs for veterans.

DVA has engaged La Trobe University, in partnership with the Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia, to undertake a trial of assistance dogs for veterans with 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 at La Trobe's Bendigo campus in Victoria.

The research will establish best practice in the training, selection and monitoring of participants and assistance dogs as part of a clinical care plan.

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

The research team will start the selection process in early 2019 for up to 20 veterans to participate in the trial. A further announcement will be made about how veterans can get involved once that process is finalised.

Selection planning for the 20 dogs is underway. Breeds being considered include Labradors, Lagottos, standard poodles and smooth-coated collies.

Pauleen Bennett kneeling on grass with one hand on a small black dog.

Pauleen Bennett will oversee the assistance dogs trial at La Trobe University.

Associate Professor Dr Pauleen Bennett, the La Trobe academic who heads up the university's 'dog lab', said research from around the world had shown that dogs could have a profound impact on the lives of veterans with PTSD.

"But the research is kind of patchy," she 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.

"Anyone can get a dog, train it up and call it an assistance dog if it meets certain requirements, but we're really interested in what's the very best we can get out of the them, and what are the most profound benefits."

The specialist in human-animal relationships, who is Head of the Department of Psychology and Counselling at La Trobe, expressed concern that some veterans were 'rushing out and getting any old dog' in the hope it could act as an assistance dog.

This could lead to the dogs becoming frightened, or hurting their handlers.

"A lot of people use dogs from shelters, which is fantastic for rescuing them and rehabilitating them, but if a dog's already been traumatised and you put it with a person who's been traumatised, that can be a disaster," she said.

The anthrozoologist recommended a measured approach for veterans looking for a companion dog.

"Don't go out and get the first dog you see because it's cute, and don't get a dog that's big and strong because you want it to protect you," she said.

"The way a dog can protect you is by being calm and being with you, sitting on your lap."

Smaller dogs that could sleep on a bed with their handler were suitable.

The trial dogs will be purpose-bred and raised. Socialisation will begin during the early weeks of the puppy's life in the breeder's home, and continue for nine months while they are fostered with the family of a La Trobe 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," Associate Professor Bennett said.

"They should be the most perfect stable, sensible dog."

Meanwhile, trial team members will work with the veterans for 12 months to train them to manage their future dog. This will include sessions with fully trained therapy dogs.

The veteran will then be matched with their own dog and spend three months working closely with them 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," Associate Professor Bennett said.

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