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Training Methods Affect the Service Dog-Veteran Relationship

Positive training methods are linked with better outcomes for PTSD service dogs.

Up to 14% of military veterans returning from Afghanistan or Iraq post 9/11 have post-traumatic stress disorder. Previous research shows that those with a specially-trained service dog have fewer psychological symptoms associated with their PTSD. As well, physiological scores are much better for those with a service dog compared to those on the waitlist. Previous studies from Purdue provide important preliminary evidence that psychiatric service dogs can help military veterans.

Now a new study from Purdue, published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, looks at the effects of dog training methods and management practices on the relationship between veterans with PTSD and their service dog.

Megan LaFollette, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue and the first author of the study, told me in an email: "This research shows how using different training methods has the potential to influence the human-animal bond and dog behavior."

One hundred and eleven post-9/11 veterans took part in the study by completing a survey about them and their service dogs. The dogs were trained by K9s for Warriors, an American charity that takes dogs from shelters and trains them to be service dogs for veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and/or military sexual trauma. The study focused only on PTSD dogs.

danielle828/Pixabay
Most of the dogs are Labrador purebreds or crosses
Source: danielle828/Pixabay

The dogs are trained specific commands that will help veterans with PTSD, such as “cover,” which positions the dog behind the handler to watch their back. As well, they watch for signs of anxiety and comfort the handler, and will even wake the handler from nightmares.

The results show that the bond between a military veteran and their service dog is very close, rated on average at 5.8 on a 1-7 scale. This is higher than has been found between people and their pet dogs. In fact, 40% of the handlers gave the highest rating of 7.

The study looked at the effects of different training methods on this bond. Before veterans bring their dogs home, they attend a three-week class on training and dog handling at which they are taught to use a mix of positive reinforcement and corrections (positive punishment).

The survey asked about the methods the veterans actually use at home with their service dog, grouped into five main categories:

  • Positive reinforcement was used daily by all of the veterans, including physical praise (100%), verbal praise (96%), play (64%), and food rewards (60%). Only 1% used clicker training.
  • Positive punishment was used daily by 79% of the handlers, mostly as verbal corrections (78%) but 30% used flat collar corrections, 23% used prong collar corrections, and 11% used physical corrections.
  • Bond-based training was used daily by 51% of the veterans, with 50% co-sleeping with the dog and 7% using “Do as I Do.” None of them shared food with the dog daily.
  • Dominance-based training was used daily by 45% of the veterans, mostly in the form of eating before the dog (38%). Ten percent did alpha rolls and 5% stared the dog down.
  • Negative punishment (ignoring the dog or giving them a time out) was used daily by 10% of the veterans.

Most veterans were using both positive reinforcement and positive punishment with their dogs every day. More frequent use of positive punishment was associated with veterans describing their bond with the dog as less close. As well, veterans who used positive punishment more often were more likely to describe the dog as showing signs of fear, making less eye contact, and being less trainable.

Previous research has found a link between the use of aversive methods and fear and stress in dogs, so this finding is not surprising. This study did not find a link between aversive methods and aggression, unlike some previous research.

Veterans who used positive reinforcement more frequently said they felt closer to their dog and reported more attention from the dog, more playfulness, and greater trainability.

Those who used bond-based approaches more often said they felt closer to their dog. Dominance-based training was not associated with any outcomes, however, in most cases, this consisted of veterans eating before their dog, which is not likely to have a training effect. The scientists say it is possible some of the reported alpha rolls were more like play than punishment.

These results suggest that positive reinforcement training methods and bond-based management practices (co-sleeping) are associated with a better human-animal bond between the veteran and their dog.

The results also showed that the severity of PTSD symptoms was not associated with the closeness of the bond with the dog or the dog’s behavior.

Interestingly, younger veterans reported their dog was more playful and more focused, and male veterans described a closer bond with their dog than female veterans. The results are correlational and do not show causation.

These days, many organizations recommend the use of reward-based training methods because of the research on risks to welfare from using aversive methods (see for example the AVSAB position statements on punishment and dominance). Some service dog organizations also require the use of reward-based methods. For example, Wounded Warriors Canada has service dog provider guidelines that say, “Service dogs are contraindicated with patients who feel that force, pain or discomfort are training methods to be used with a dog.” The results of this study support the use of such guidelines, as using positive reinforcement was linked to a closer bond with the dog and better outcomes such as increased trainability.

Overall, these results show how close the bond is between military veterans and their psychiatric service dog, and that even veterans with severe PTSD symptoms form a close bond with their dog. As well, the use of positive training methods is associated with a closer human-animal bond and is better for the dog. This suggests that education on how to use reward-based methods will be beneficial for both service dog organizations and the dogs’ handlers.

References

LaFollette, M. R., Rodriguez, K. E., Ogata, N., & O'Haire, M. E. (2019). Military veterans and their PTSD service dogs: associations between training methods, PTSD severity, dog behavior, and the human-animal bond. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6:23.

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