Anecdotal data and observational studies suggest that canine companionship has beneficial impacts in numerous populations, including Service members suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One characteristic that has been observed in individuals with PTSD is a predisposition towards focusing their attention towards threatening or aversive stimuli as opposed to neutral or positive stimuli. Referred to as "attentional bias", this characteristic is also common across other anxiety disorders.
With funding from the Defense Medical Research and Development Program managed by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, researchers at the National Center for PTSD at the Department of Veteran Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System assessed the impact of canine companionship on attentional bias in a population of Veterans diagnosed with chronic, severe PTSD as a result of multiple trauma exposures while deployed. All individuals were receiving inpatient treatment in the Trauma Recovery Program. This program included Service Animal Training Intervention, in which participants provided early socialization to young service canines. Using eye-tracking techniques, researchers quantified the amount in visual attention directed toward aversive versus neutral stimuli using both facial and scenic images in the presence or absence of the participant's service canine.
Their findings demonstrate that the physical presence of a familiar service canine reduced the attentional bias towards aversive image content compared to the attentional bias displayed in the absence of the service canine. Furthermore, this attenuation was more evident in individuals who had spent more than 8 days with their service canine. Although additional research in larger, more heterogeneous populations still needs to be completed, this current study provides objective support for future work investigating attentional bias modification-based approaches for the treatment of PTSD in Service members.
Woodward SH, Jamison AL, Gala S, Holmes TH. (2017). Canine companionship is associated with modification of attentional bias in posttraumatic stress disorder. PLoS ONE. 12(10): e0179912. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0179912.
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