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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

December 2016

Assistance dogs take center stage at NIEHS Veterans Day event

Terry Henry, from paws4people, with his assistance dog, Campbell, shared how trained dogs can help those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

NIEHS welcomed Terry Henry and his psychiatric medical alert assistance dog, Campbell, Nov. 9 for a Veterans Day observance. Henry chairs the board of trustees and oversees operations for paws4people (P4P), an organization that breeds, trains, and places assistance dogs, to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other injuries or traumas.

“Those who think combat is required to get PTSD are sorely mistaken,” said Henry, a veteran and founder of paws4vets, a component of P4P.

A day to honor and remember

NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., opened the event, reflecting on her own experiences with family members who have served in the military. She also gave a brief history of the Veterans Day holiday and recognized NIEHS veterans, past and present.

“It’s important that we understand the history of Veterans Day in order to fully appreciate how much our veterans have given for their country,” said Birnbaum, noting the holiday’s origins at the conclusion of World War I. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as Armistice Day. It was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 by President Dwight Eisenhower.

When Birnbaum turned the podium over to Henry and Campbell, the audience greeted them with a standing ovation.

Building bonds of support

Henry explained how assistance dogs are trained to recognize specific scent signatures and signs such as heavy perspiration and breathing rate associated with an individual’s rise in stress from an oncoming PTSD episode. The dog then helps that client lower his or her anxiety before the episode can peak. The dog also learns a client’s triggers, such as loud noises, heavy crowds, passing airplanes, etc. This proprietary process is called Intervention Transfer Training (ITT; see text box), which Henry developed.

“Building the bond between a client and his or her assistance dog can take time,” said Henry. “We’ve seen it done in as little as four months, and as many as 22 months. At the end of the day, each case is unique — it’s not something we can rush.”

Once the formal training process is finished, clients are encouraged to use their dogs to become active members of the community. As Henry explained, this benefits the client’s mental health and those in the community the clients get involved with.

“Typically when we have clients who encounter problems after leaving training, this [community involvement] is what they’re not doing,” Henry said.

In addition to veterans, P4P provides assistance dogs to children and adolescents with various disabilities, as well as civilians with PTSD and other trauma-related conditions. When it comes to training, however, each class always includes members from each group, because mutual aid is an essential part of ITT. According to Henry, the program processes 90 applications for every one that it accepts.

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

The training process

ITT involves five phases.

  1. Slightest Ray of Hope — Clients are helped to identify anything that can reduce stress, such as happy places, objects, habits, and activities.
  2. Introduction — Clients paired with their dogs are triggered by a stressful episode under tightly monitored conditions. This allows the dog first-hand experience with a client’s symptoms and scent signatures.
  3. Storyboarding — Trainers have clients map out the causes of their PTSD episodes, such as triggers, settings, and stimuli. This knowledge is critical for the dogs to learn how to do their jobs.
  4. The A-ha Moment — The first time a client avoids a PTSD episode under circumstances or triggers in which he or she would ordinarily have experienced a full attack.
  5. Muscle Memory — The client works with their dog to hone their ability to recognize PTSD triggers before an episode sets in and lean on their animals to minimize its length, intensity, and other effects.
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