British Columbia

Service dogs under microscope as agencies consider funding

With volumes of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of service dogs in the treatment of PTSD, trainers say they look forward to the completion of evidence-based research that should make it easier to inject funds into a cash-starved industry.

Interest outstripping dog supply as trainers wait for empirical proof service dogs help combat PTSD

Service dogs are not simply emotional support; they are trained to perform specific tasks which assist people suffering from PTSD. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The studies are underway, but Danielle Forbes says she's already certain of what they'll find.

The executive director of National Service Dogs says the anecdotal evidence from her organization's clients is overwhelming: service dogs are unparalleled in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Forbes says the animals have lowered anxiety, reduced the cost of medication, provided comfort and security for both sufferers and family. But anecdotes are one thing, and empirical evidence is another.

'Playing a waiting game'

And while researchers work to quantify the impact of service dogs on the treatment of PTSD, many in the industry say they're struggling for the funds needed to train qualified animals in the face of huge public interest.

"We're playing a waiting game," says Forbes, whose organization in based in Ontario.

"We have feedback, but it's not science-based. I have clients that are living enriched lives that they share with us on sometimes [a] daily, if not weekly basis, because of the dog being in their lives."

Citadel canine is a Vancouver-based organization which trains and places service dogs. They are working with Veterans Affairs Canada on a pilot study on the impact of the dogs. (Citadel Canine)

A recent decision by British Columbia's workers compensation board, WorkSafeBC, highlights the issues facing the cash-strapped service dog industry.

The board was asked to sponsor a service dog for the treatment of PTSD and depression.

But after careful consideration of the existing research, WorkSafeBC's evidence-based practice group rejected the application.

Review officer Ainslie Dowd upheld that decision.

"To be clear, I do not doubt that the worker would enjoy the companionship and other benefits that a dog might bring, but the board does not pay for forms of treatment which have not been empirically established as efficacious," he wrote.

"It may be that the studies to which the worker refers will one day establish with a degree of reliability that service dogs are effective in this role, but that remains speculative."

Clinical difference, not just feeling better

The decision opens an interesting window on a promising means of treatment for PTSD, a condition which is a major issue in workplace claims — particularly for first responders like paramedics, police and firefighters.

Service dogs are not simply emotional companions, but are trained to perform specific tasks.

In the case of someone with PTSD, that might mean:

  • Entering a room first.
  • Patrolling a house at night.
  • Providing an excuse to leave situations of conflict.
  • Using tactile stimulation like licking to combat emotional overload.

Beyond the question of whether or not service dogs actually work as a treatment for PTSD, WorkSafeBC director of special services Jennifer Leyen says the agency has to consider the basic nature of its relationship to the animals:

  • Would they pay for the purchase of a service dog?
  • Would they pay for its ongoing service and training and health care costs?
  • What happens if the dog dies?
  • What happens if the dog doesn't work — but the worker gets attached?

"It would be a very different type of treatment for us to be looking at," says Leyen.

"To me, as a professional in this field, I think it's exciting and I'm very optimistic that it is something that will help individuals with PTSD, but before WorkSafe can fund it, it does have to be evidence-based. We have to know that what we're doing is actually making a clinical difference, not just making people feel better."

Money a constant challenge

To be clear, service dog trainers are applauding WorkSafeBC's caution. Forbes says taxpayers should not be funding untested treatments.

But her organization put out seven dogs last year. And they had 5,000 calls for information in six months alone.

The dogs take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to train.

"It's a very difficult time within out industry right now," she says. "You have a huge, huge volume of people trying to access services which don't exist."

Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks like turning on lights, patrolling the house and defusing stressful situations. They can't answer email. (National Service Dogs)

Brian Archer is the founder of Vancouver-based Citadel Canine Society, one of nine Canadian organizations currently working with a University of Laval researcher and Veteran Affairs Canada on a pilot study involving service dogs and veterans.

He thinks national standards are needed for the training and certification of service dogs, rules similar to legislation which currently exists in B.C. and Alberta. 

Archer also thinks WorkSafeBC is right to be cautious.

But in the interim, he worries unqualified people will put improperly trained service dogs into homes, doing more harm than good.

Those problems often come up in complaints about the public behaviour of dogs which have nothing to do with certified agencies — but which reflect poorly on the industry as a whole.

Like Forbes, he says, money is a constant problem.

"It's a huge challenge," he says. "If we had more money, we could operate at a faster clip."

Which brings the issue back full circle. Once the evidence is in, the funds will likely follow.

Leyen points to equine therapy as a parallel. The treatment involves activities with horses to alleviate stress. WorkSafeBC has funded equine therapy in at least one PTSD-related case, and Leyen says it was successful.

"We are looking at these types of therapies," she says. "They're not mainstream. And they're not common."


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