Returning from a war zone back to everyday life can present an array of challenges for veterans.
The unfortunate reality is some may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning home.
However, after years of work looking at the relationship between humans and animals, Associate Professor Pauleen Bennett has found a way to help veterans.
“There is something very special about the relationship between dogs and humans,” Dr Bennett said.
Army veteran Kellie Dadds believes the companionship from assistance dogs can help bridge the gap between PTSD and having a positive mental wellbeing.
“It can be hard for veterans who have gone from being a highly competent trained soldier to all of a sudden struggle to get out of bed in the morning,” Ms Dadds said.
A new trial based at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus will approach PTSD treatment for veterans using the aid provided by assistance dogs.
After commencing a career within neuropsychology working with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries, Dr Bennett became intrigued with the relationship between dogs and humans.
“It became very apparent to me that dogs are very important to a lot of people, regardless of what was going on in their lives,” Dr Bennett said.
“As a psychologist I was amazed and wanted to learn more about it.”
Starting off as a side interest, Dr Bennett soon realised that she was able to combine her love of dogs with her passion for psychology and has become a world leader on the topic over the last two decades.
“As a community we tend to use pharmacology and psychotherapy,” she said.
“However, something as simple as a warm friendly dog in the house can be profoundly important and can make veterans feel safe.”
A veteran’s experience
Ms Dadds has first-hand experience of what it is like to live a life affected by PTSD.
“It really does impact you and you need a lot of support,” Ms Dadds said.
One of the main challenges for veterans living with PTSD is their symptoms may inhibit the ability to ask for the support they need.
“I developed PTSD in 2015 after multiple deployments overseas with the army and it hit me very quickly,” Ms Dadds said.
“I certainly didn’t see it coming, but I was very fortunate to have wonderful family support around me.”
The experience of living with PTSD had a “massive” impact on her life and unfortunately ended her career in the military.
“It’s different for everyone,” she said.
“I believe a lot of the stigma towards PTSD has gone, particularly within the veteran community and also society is now very supportive towards people who are affected.
“I have a lot of friends who are veterans and suffer from PTSD and they have been fortunate to be aided by an assistance dog.”
Ms Dadds highlighted there are multiple forms of recovery that will work differently depending on the individual, but the latest announcement had secured a new option for veterans to aid their recovery.
The trial will include $2 million funding from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and will also be partnered with the Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia.
“People within the defence force and emergency services are frequently exposed to traumatic experiences,” Ms Dadds said.
“For a lot of the time we are so focused on our jobs that it doesn’t impact us.
“Once we stop and think about what has happened, that is often when it starts to have an impact.”
Dr Bennett said the aid provided by the assistance dogs would be used to supplement clinical therapy.
“Some veterans have difficulty sleeping at night as they experience traumatic memories and dreams,” Dr Bennett said.
“We can train a dog to lie in bed with the individual and if they sense they start to become anxious in their sleep, the dog can interrupt the behaviour and wake them up.
“They will help prevent the person from having nightmares and instead they will be able to have a restful night of sleep.”
Beyond the dog’s ability to sense any drastic emotional changes, the level of companionship which they provide is also of great benefit to increase mental wellbeing.
Dissimilar to pet dogs, the assistance dogs will be trained to perform duties which will help contribute to the recovery of the participants within the trial.
“Anecdotal evidence from research in Canada and the United States has shown that assistance dogs for some veterans is the difference between life and death,” Dr Bennett said.
While undergoing training the dogs will be fostered by staff and students from La Trobe University across multiple campuses, the process will ensure the dogs become normalised to various social settings.
The puppies involved in the trial will undergo extensive training and will consist of various breeds and will be chosen specifically based on the needs of each veteran.
The trial will involve Dr Bennett and her team working with veterans to assess their particular needs to identify which breed of dog would be best suited to assist them.
“We will be working with the puppy breeders to ensure that from day one the dogs have optimal development skills,” Dr Bennett said.
The trial was announced by Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Darren Chester and the selection process for 20 participants will commence in 2019.