Service Dogs' Influence on Military Veterans' Health: A Qualitative Study

Sunday, 30 July 2017: 11:35 AM

Cheryl A. Krause-Parello, PhD, MSN, BSN
Kristie Morales, BA
Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors: College of Nursing- Anschutz Medical Campus, University of Colorado Denver, Aurora, CO, USA

Purpose: Military service members from across the world returning from active duty may be vulnerable to challenges associated with service-connected medical conditions. There is little debate that conditions such loss of limb(s), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), significantly impair a large segment of military veterans (Creamer, Wade, Fletcher, & Forbes, 2011). Invisible wounds such as PTSD and TBI are correlated with an increased risk in developing anxiety, depression, substance use (e.g., alcohol use), and engaging in suicidal ideation (Wisco et al., 2014). This presents unique challenges to veterans, making them a particularly vulnerable population that may contribute to poorer clinical health outcomes. Moreover, many veterans continue to experience PTSD related symptomology and sequela despite receiving standard care. In many of these cases, veterans are turning to alternate assistive interventions, such as the utility of a service dog for visible and invisible wounds (Krause-Parello Sarni, & Padden, 2016).

Methods: The aim of this qualitative study was to elucidate the impact of service dogs on health outcomes for a US veteran population. Service dogs are trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability and can help to assist with tasks needed for daily functioning. This presentation reports the breadth and depth of service dogs for service connected conditions (e.g. PTSD and TBI). In-depth interviews were conducted with veterans (N = 21) and analyzed using interpretive phenomenological analysis. The interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Atlas.ti software was used to explore, interconnect, and organize the data in-depth for the presence of reemerging content and meaning. Five superordinate themes emerged from the thematic analysis: Procurement of service dog, psychosocial functioning before service dog, impact of service dog, importance of service dog to veterans’ health and reintegration, and issues.

Results: Factors that were related to obtaining a service dog after military service were connected to the symptomology and sequela associated with invisible wounds such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and TBI. The impact of utilizing a service dog was found to reduce the symptomology associated with invisible wounds, provided psychosocial support, served as a protective mechanism against suicidal ideation and substance use. The service dog also allowed some veterans to reduce or cease psychotropic medications used for depression and anxiety, improving health outcomes and perceived quality of life.

Conclusion: The results substantiated the positive impact on health promotion and clinical outcomes that service dogs provide for veterans; a call to action for change in public policy is needed regarding service dogs as a reimbursable medical expense for invisible wounds.