(Photo: John Ogresko)

Hounds of hope: USask researcher investigates how service dogs can improve the mental health of veterans

The human-to-animal connection may reduce the risk of suicide in military Veterans by providing unique social support.

USask MA candidate in sociology, Alexandria Pavelich. (Photo: Gene Pavelich)

University of Saskatchewan (USask) sociology MA candidate Alexandria Pavelich is exploring how suicidality in military veterans may be mitigated by the presence of service dogs and how this relationship positively influences mental health.

The mental health of military Veterans is a long-standing concern. A 2019 study by Veteran Affairs Canada found that male and female Veterans were, respectively, 1.4 times and 1.9 times more likely to die of suicide than other Canadians.

The research is supervised by Dr. Colleen Dell (PhD), USask sociology professor and Research Chair in One Health and Wellness, who led a study examining the impact that service dogs have on Veterans’ problematic substance use and overall health along with co-investigator Dr. Nathaniel Osgood (PhD).

Within Dell’s data, Pavelich decided to look deeper into why and how relationships with service dogs have a profound effect on the mental health of Veterans, and why they view their dog as a social support.

She identified recurrent themes that came up in interviews with Veterans who worked with a psychiatric service dog.

My study is the first where the human-animal bond is being analyzed for the direct potential it has in reducing suicide risk,” said Pavelich.

“Human-animal bond researchers are realizing that there is a unique connection between an individual and their service dog, and this relationship differs in a lot of ways from the social support that occurs in a human-to-human interaction.”

Pavelich’s main finding can be summarized in a way that touches the human heart — a companionable relationship with an animal allows people to feel like they matter.

“Research has shown us that, for people who have experienced trauma, being able to feel safe through social connection is incredibly important for reducing suicide risk and improving overall mental health,” said Pavelich.

The critical point is that we need a feeling of reciprocity from our social network; someone must feel adequately heard and seen by the supports they are surrounded by,” said Pavelich.

A major discovery was that the presence of a service dog can do much more than decrease the risk of detrimental behaviours, but can provide much more profound social support that is needed after experiencing trauma.

“It is becoming increasingly recognized that when an adult or child may be too skittish or emotionally shut down – because of trauma they have experienced – to derive any sort of comfort from other humans or a therapist, relationships with animals can do wonders,” said Pavelich.

“It is that unspoken support — a less complicated form of companionship — that can enable healing.”

Widespread recognition of the benefits of animal companionship has the potential to reduce burdens on the health care system. For those that are able, developing a bond with an animal can provide a source of therapeutic value and can serve as a non-pharmacological complementary treatment option for mental health concerns.

Pavelich plans to continue to study how service dogs positively impact all areas that may further increase a Veteran’s suicide risk, such as chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, or other difficulties that occur during re-entry into civilian life.

She emphasizes that the benefits of animal bonds can be realized in many different health contexts for both psychological and physiological wellness.

“The bond a human and animal have can be very unique, as animals can provide purpose or meaning or feelings of safety or support in our lives. These are crucial factors in reducing suicide risk for anyone.”

The research was funded by the USask Dean’s Scholarship and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

This article first ran as part of the 2021 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Brooke Kleiboer is a communications student intern in the USask Research Profile and Impact unit.

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