The Dogs of Post-War: Pentagon Tests Canine Therapy

The Department of Defense is testing canine therapy as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Flickr/pmarkham

For veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, finding relief from post traumatic stress disorder usually involves psychiatric treatment, medication, or both. But what if you could achieve some of the same outcomes just by spending time with a dog?

That's what Marine Sergeant Jon Gordon tried after he suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2010 while on tour in Afghanistan. Gordon started having problems sleeping when he came back to the United States, reporting only one or two hours of rest a night. Then he met Birdie, a specially trained golden retriever. Now, Gordon says, he sleeps "ten times better" when he takes Birdie home with him.

"I slept 11 hours with him last night," said Gordon. "Without medication."

Stories like Gordon's are contributing to a growing body of research on canine therapy and its potential for helping veterans and active-duty soldiers recover from traumatic events. With the Pentagon's support, nearly 100 troops have undergone canine therapy at the Defense Department's National Intrepid Center of Excellence. Dogs rotate among groups of patients whose job it is to train the animals. It's a mutually beneficial relationship: by the end of each rotation, the program winds up providing treatment to 20 service members and produces a fully trained service dog.

Dog therapy remains an experimental treatment for now, but the pace of research on canine and other animal-assisted treatment is beginning to pick up. Last year, an Israeli study found that teenage girls suffering from psychological trauma exhibited fewer symptoms of PTSD after receiving canine therapy. Other studies credit canine therapy with lowering blood pressure among cardiac patients, reducing the perception of pain among children, and increasing the function of elderly schizophrenics.

The secret to dog therapy? Oxytocin, the hormone that lubricates social interactions by tamping down the brain's fight-or-flight instinct.

"Oxytocin replaces fight-flight with a brain and body chemistry of calm-connect," said Meg Olmert, director of research at the veterans' therapy outfit Warrior Canine Connection. "Dogs also release this same brain chemistry in humans. It is not just in your head that you think your dog is family."

For Sergeant Gordon, the relationship with Birdie has had second-order effects, too. Learning how to train a dog has helped him raise his human family.

"I have a five-year-old," Gordon said. "I was correcting the negative things all the time, but I've learned you've got to praise the positives and not so much the negatives. It just taught me a different aspect in how to shape behavior when it comes to raising a daughter."

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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