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Veterans and Shelter Dogs: Examining the Impact of a Dog-Walking Intervention on Physiological and Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms

By Cheryl A. Krause-Parello, Erika Friedmann, Kelly Blanchard, Megan Payton, Nancy R. Gee

Category Journal Articles
Abstract

When military veterans return from service many are in a state of reintegration from military to civilian life, a transition that can be difficult and stressful. Recent literature supports the use of human–animal interactions to reduce stress. To date there have been few studies that examine the health effects of interacting with dogs specifically in the veteran population. This project evaluated the effect of walking with a shelter dog on psychological and physiological stress indicators in veterans. A randomized repeated measures crossover study was employed. Veterans (n = 33) consented to participate in experimental (dog-walk: four weekly 30-min. sessions) and comparison (human-walk: four weekly 30-min. sessions) conditions. The setting was two animal shelters. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, perceived stress, and salivary cortisol, alpha-amylase (AA), and heart rate variability (HRV) were assessed. Linear mixed models with random intercepts and repeated measurements nested within participants were used for separate analyses of each outcome. The results indicate responses to walking with a dog and a human from week 1 to week 4 were different depending on PTSD symptoms. Walking with a dog or another person led to decreases in cortisol among those with low PTSD symptom severity (p = 0.057 and p = 0.026, respectively). For individuals with high PTSD symptoms, walking with a dog did not significantly change levels of AA, but walking with a person did (p = 0.953 and p < 0.001, respectively). For individuals with lower PTSD symptom, AA did not change significantly (p > 0.05) for either type of walk. HRV data revealed a significant interaction (F(2, 458.74) = 3.505, p = 0.031] between the week number of the walk and dog presence. Average HRV increased for individuals with higher PTSD symptoms from week 1 to week 4 but decreased when they walked with a human. This study provides evidence that walking with a shelter dog affects psychological and physiological stress indicators in veterans. Additional measures and extended monitoring require creative strategies to engage participants after the intervention (e.g., walks) to facilitate assessment of peak responses. Future studies with a larger sample size in multiple shelters should be conducted to validate and extend the current results.

Publication Title Anthrozoös
Volume 33
Issue 2
Pages 225-241
ISBN/ISSN 0892-7936
DOI 10.1080/08927936.2020.1719763
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Tags
  1. Dogs
  2. Heart rate
  3. Human-animal interactions
  4. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  5. veterans