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Assistance dogs to support veterans

MILITARY veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be able to access specially trained assistance dogs under a new program announced by Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel Darren Chester.

Mr Chester said two suppliers of assistance dogs had been contracted to work with the veteran community following overwhelming feedback from ex-service organisations.

“This program will change lives and it will save lives,” Mr Chester said.

“Matching a veteran experiencing PTSD with a specially-trained assistance dog will help reduce isolation and give the veteran a chance to improve their mental wellbeing and overall lifestyle.

“We have listened to veterans, ex-service organisations and the wider ex-service community about the role psychiatric assistance dogs can play in the lives of veterans with PTSD.

“These dogs are highly trained to detect signs of distress in their handler and perform specific tasks to help ease those symptoms.

“For example, waking their handler experiencing a night terror or nuzzling their handler to distract them from emotionally disabling symptoms.

“We have announced two companies, Smart Pups Assistance Dogs and Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia, as the first suppliers chosen to provide assistance dogs to our veterans.”

The announcement is in addition to a research project currently underway with La Trobe University to expand the evidence base for further use of assistance dogs for veterans.

“The early results from that trial have been very positive and will help to inform the work we are doing now to support more veterans with PTSD,” Mr Chester said.

“There has been emerging evidence around the world that supports the use of assistance dogs in addition to ongoing treatment for the management of PTSD.”

Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia (CSTDA) principal psychologist Dr Pree Benton said CSTDA was thrilled to be partnering with Department of Veterans’ Affairs in delivering such innovative care to veterans.

“Assistance dogs are able to pick up on the veteran’s stress in a way that we as humans are not and respond to this by assisting them in the moment with trained strategies to downregulate the veteran’s distress,” Dr Benton said.

“The dogs can also be trained to wake veterans up from nightmares, scan the environment for the veteran to reduce hypervigilance, and provide a barrier between the veteran and members of the public to induce feelings of safety.

“Assistance dogs are trained to have a symbiotic relationship with the veterans, whereby not only does the veteran benefit from having their assistance dog perform its trained tasks, but the assistance dog also benefits from having a daily job to do in supporting their veteran partner.

“This also serves to boost self-worth and provide a sense of purpose to the veterans.

“We believe this relationship is what makes the veteran-assistance dog partnership so effective.”

Unlike pet or companion dogs, assistance dogs are specially trained to perform tasks that help their handler to achieve their clinical recovery goals.

They are trained to meet the veteran’s needs and veterans will be trained as their dog’s handler.

“Assistance dogs will support those veterans in need now while we continue to work with La Trobe University to further develop evidence that backs up what we know – that assistance dogs can support the treatment of PTSD,” Mr Chester said.

“The Government is committed to putting veterans and their families first and is providing more than $230 million a year towards veteran mental health.”

A limited tender was undertaken to gain access to assistance dogs for veterans in need as early as possible, and there will soon be an open tender to expand the panel of providers.

Veterans currently seeking treatment for PTSD are encouraged to speak to their mental health professional in regard to gaining access to an assistance dog.

For more information, visit www.dva.gov.au/health-and-wellbeing/rehabilitation/assistance-dogs.

Caption: A new program will see veterans suffering from PTSD access specially trained assistance dogs.