Man’s best friend may also be a veteran’s best therapy.

Faced statistics from a 2011 report on the needs of veterans returning to the labor force that showed a higher-than-average unemployment rate and a threefold increase in post-traumatic stress disorder over the last decade, a team of West Virginia University researchers and an area non-profit are partnering with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to see if dogs can help veterans both recover and return to the workforce.

“Although there is significant interest in service dogs for veterans to aid in readjustment, the focus has not been on employment,” said Matt Wilson, project leader and interim director of the Division of Animal and Nutritional Sciences in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

“There is a resounding lack of empirical evidence documenting whether the provision of service dogs is of therapeutic benefit for persons with PTSD – other than the generally accepted, positive effects of human-animal companionship,” Wilson continued.

The institute has provided $273,202 to allow the WVU-led team to collaborate on Project ROVER, Returning Our Veterans to Employment and Reintegration. Project ROVER is a component of a larger NIOSH initiative related to total worker health and its focus on veterans.

The Project Rover team will examine the therapeutic benefits of service dogs that are trained to provide physical and psychological assistance to veterans, and determine the impact of this assistance on the veterans’ ability to cope with the symptoms of PTSD and function effectively in the workplace.

The Division of Animal and Nutritional Sciences has been offering innovative (and popular) courses in service dog training since 2006, and the ROVER project will provide an organic means of expanding the purposes and potential benefits of those courses. WVU’s partnership with the Human-Animal Bond, Inc., a non-profit that operates the Morgantown-based Hearts of Gold Service Dog Project, is central to the WVU and NIOSH effort.

Clarksburg resident Clay Rankin, a Hearts of Gold volunteers, is a combat veteran of the first Gulf War and completed multiple tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom will help provide a personal perspective to the program.

His own return to work was facilitated by the acquisition of Harley, a mobility and psychological assistance dog. Rankin has served as an Army Wounded Warrior liaison, has assisted in the placement of service dogs with veterans and is on the Board of Directors for Patriot Paws, the organization that provided Harley.

“Clay will be invaluable in providing perspectives on the surveys, focus groups, literature review, and the various contexts and tasks for the laboratory-based clinical case studies,” Wilson said.

WVU and Hearts of Gold are collaborating with the PTSD Rehabilitation Program staff at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Clarksburg, on the development of the ROVER project.

Key to that collaboration has been Joseph R. Scotti, a clinical psychologist in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at WVU. Scotti has more than 30 years of research experience and clinical work with people with a range of psychiatric disorders, primarily PTSD and developmental disabilities.

He recently completed a major survey of 1,100 veterans of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify service-related psychological, physiological, functional and social issues, and testified before the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on his findings. Scotti will provide research consultation to Project ROVER.

Richard T. Gross, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at the Chestnut Ridge Center, also will provide expertise in clinical psychology and behavior analysis.

Anne Foreman, a WVU Ph.D. candidate in psychology and certified professional dog trainer, is one of the instructors of the University’s service dog training courses. Foreman has a Master of Science degree in psychology from WVU. Megan Maxwell, owner of Pet Behavior Change in State College, Pa., earned her master’s and doctorate in psychology and will provide consultation in animal behavior, training procedures and research design for the project.

The project team will work with two NIOSH scientists to conduct the research. Lindsay Parenti, M.S., a board-certified behavior analyst and certified dog trainer is a NIOSH Research Fellow, and Oliver Wirth, Ph.D., a research psychologist, is the NIOSH Project Officer on the ROVER project. Both are graduates of the behavior analysis program in the Department of Psychology at WVU.



CONTACT: David Welsh, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design

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