Research conducted by Leanne Nieforth, MS, and her team at Purdue University found veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were more resilient and better able to reintegrate into society if they had the assistance of their spouses and service dogs. The team’s work has been published recently in three different journals, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Current Psychology, and European Journal of Pyschotraumatology
“We wanted to focus on the influence of the service dog on military families, specifically the spouses,” said Nieforth, who is a TL1 predoctoral awardee for the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI). “We believe that by incorporating a dog into a military home, a connection can be built in the family. Our main goal is to help these families become more resilient.”
Nieforth and her team’s work is based on the theory of resilience and relational load. Being more resilient means that a person can have an easier time adjusting to challenges and the changes that occur in their lives.
According to the team’s research, the veteran’s spouse and service dog come together to influence resiliency in their lives. The service dog builds an emotional bond with the family that challenges the relational load that can be withstood by the family. The relationship between the service dog and the veteran and the relationship between the veteran and the spouse are affected by the maintaining of behaviors, which allows each relationship an opportunity to see how the veteran responds and adapts to their everyday environment.
Previous research has shown that service dogs can be beneficial to military families, but Nieforth and her team want to understand the psychological elements of the relationship to better understand the science behind service dog usage. Nieforth said her team is leading the way in this field and they hope to help as many families as they can.
When asked about the future of her research, Neiforth said the next step is to help families understand what it means to have a service dog in their home. For their research, Neiforth and her team partnered with a national nonprofit service dog provider, K9s for Warriors. The program integrates dogs from shelters, so many different breeds are utilized in the research, but they are screened for temperament and have to meet the appropriate size of 24 inches from foot to shoulder. She also said that one day they hope to determine different effects on a family based on the size and breed of the dog.
Neiforth and her team’s research is supported by the Centers for the Human-Animal Bond (CHAB). The organization provides researchers an opportunity to bring together an interdisciplinary team to work on animal-assisted interventions and learn more about the bond between humans and animals.