Who advocates for assistance dogs?
Over the past few years there has been a significant growth in the use of ‘assistance dogs.’ Dogs are trained to help people with their physical and mental health problems. Although, fundamentally, this is a good thing for the humans being helped, I wonder about who advocates for the dogs?
I was prompted by a couple of research papers, (Sundman et al., 2021) and (LaFollette et al., 2021) to think about this some more. The first looks at the impact of human (owner) stress on our dogs and, the second looks at the methods used for training service dogs for PTSD sufferers.
As a dog lover, rescuer of dogs and a canine behaviourist I, have long, been convinced of the positive impact a dog can have on our lives. There is no doubt, for me, that a canine companion can have a very positive effect on a human suffering with mental health issues such as PTSD. This is what led me to setup Paw Support, an idea proposed to me by my wife Sue, an expert in Mindfulness who has extensive experience helping people, police, military veterans and civilians with complex mental health issues including PTSD.
The idea behind Paw Support is a simple one. Stabilise an individual then find a rescue dog in need of a home. This differs from the ‘assistance dog’ premise. Paw Support considers if the individual can benefit from having a dog and if their home environs are suitable; then they are matched up with a dog that needs a home. This dog is not required to ‘do’ tasks, they are, simply, a companion. The individual is taught how to live with and help the dog if there are any behavioural issues that need addressing. In this way, the dog gets a home and is rehabilitated, with the help of a canine behaviourist, and the human is helped by having the dog in their life. It’s a win-win for both.
(Sundman et al., 2021) looked at how long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners. According to Polyvagal theory (Porges et al., 1994) coregulation is the reciprocal sending and receiving of safety signals. It is not merely the absence of danger but the connection between two nervous systems, each nourishing and regulating the other in the process. Coregulation is a very important consideration in relation to the human/dog relationship. (Sundman et al., 2021) found that it is the dogs that mirror the stress levels of the owner rather than the owner responding to the stress in their dogs. With this in mind, let us consider PTSD service dogs.
(LaFollette et al., 2021) reported that 58% of the assistance dogs come from rescue centres or shelters. Now, from a canine behaviour viewpoint, these dogs will have had varied experiences, many of which may not be good. These dogs will, most likely, have behavioural issues they need help with. There is rarely, if any, evidence of canine behaviourist involvement in the organisations engaged with the training and provision of assistance dogs. There are, of course, dog trainers, but that is a different discipline to a canine behaviourist.
A variety of training methods are often used. Cited in the (LaFollette et al., 2021) paper are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement through to dominance methods (flipping a dog onto its back for instance). The paper states that there are no specific tests needed to qualify as an assistance dog. These dogs, in the U.S, at least, are expected to work with and perform tasks for a person with PTSD including responding to a person’s anxiety. If we consider (Sundman et al., 2021) it is not surprising that behavioural issues can arise with the dog taking on the stress of their human.
In fact, (LaFollette et al., 2021) suggests, unsurprisingly, that owners’ symptoms of depression and PTSD were predictors for the development of canine behavioural problems such as aggression, attention seeking behaviour and separation anxiety. Over half of the veterans reported that their dogs always followed them from room to room (68%), remain close when sitting or resting, over 40% showing fear or anxiety and 46% being anxious and upset when left alone.
The, relatively, high levels of anxiety may likely be a result of the service dog training to form high attachments to their owner. They are trained to follow their owners everywhere, a precursor to the development of separation anxiety.
You may think I am opposed to the use of dogs to help humans; I am not. I do, however, believe that the needs of the dogs should be foremost in our thoughts. Dogs, particularly, rescued dogs should be assessed by a canine behaviourist in addition to a trainer. Programs should incorporate the behavioural elements and the welfare of the dogs in question. To be exposed, 24/7 to stress is not good for a dog. Dogs, like their owners, need to have their needs considered and managed.
LaFollette, Megan R., Rodriguez, Kerri E., Ogata, Niwako and O’Haire, Marguerite E. (2021), Military Veterans And Their PTSD Service Dogs: Associations Between Training Methods, PTSD Severity, Dog Behavior, And The Human-Animal Bond. Frontiers in veterinary science. available at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2019.00023/full [11 February 2019].
Porges, Stephen W., Doussard‐Roosevelt, Jane A. and Maiti, Ajit K. (1994), VAGAL TONE AND THE PHYSIOLOGICAL REGULATION OF EMOTION. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(2-3): 167-186. available at https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5834.1994.tb01283.x
Sundman, Ann-Sofie, Van Poucke, Enya, Svensson Holm, Ann-Charlotte, Faresjö, Åshild, Theodorsson, Elvar, Jensen, Per and Roth, Lina S. V. (2021), Long-Term Stress Levels Are Synchronized In Dogs And Their Owners. available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43851-x [8 October 2020].