It is well known that service dogs provide valuable assistance to physically disabled military veterans. However, it has long been suspected that service members with invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress also are healed when they participate in training the dogs for placement with veterans with physical injuries. Now, Dr. Norm Epstein, family science professor and director of the Couple and Family Therapy master’s program in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, will study the impact of a program that engages military service members in training service dogs on their family relationships and mental health. Working with a nonprofit group, the Warrior Canine Connection, that involves military PTSD sufferers in training service dogs that will be partnered with wounded warriors, Prof. Epstein will collect and analyze data gathered through meetings with service members and their families over the course of the year after they participate in the service dog training program (SDTP). This four year longitudinal clinical trial, funded with $604,000 by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine and part of a larger multi-million dollar project, will rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of the service dog training program and could help define how it might be used to help more military members with PTSD.
“The service members who go through the dog training program program feel that it is an important service they are providing to their fellow soldiers and are motivated by a mission to help others,” explains Dr. Epstein, a leader in the field of research on marital and family relationships and treatments for distressed couples and families. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that the process of training the dogs encourages attachment, empathy and patience that translates to how they relate to their kids and their spouse or partner. We want to understand how this influences their relationships and well-being over the short and long term.”
The study will compare outcomes for those who have gone through the service dog training program (SDTP) “treatment” (in addition to the current standard of care within military treatment facilities) with those who have received the standard of care without SDTP. The participants will be recruited from the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
The family relationship assessments will include questionnaires assessing each couple’s demographic characteristics, relationship satisfaction, couple communication patterns, positive behaviors shared by partners, and the Service Member’s parenting behavior, as well as detailed “coding” of couple communication quality and parent-child interaction between the Service Member and one of his or her children, based on video-recorded samples of interactions in a standardized lab protocol. The spouse/significant other’s level of stress will be assessed at each of the five assessment points in order to track changes in his or her level of life stress as the Service Member participates in the study.