(89) Evidence-Based Treatment: Molly Fails the Test

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly

A Blog about a Service Dog and her Veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the Veteran and the Family Caregiver)


VA’s Evidence-Based Treatments

The VA sent one of its monthly PTSD updates, encouraging Veterans to seek evidence-based treatment for their PTSD symptoms. According to the VA definition of evidence-based treatment, Molly and service dogs do not qualify as a treatment for PTSD.

When the Molly blog began in July of last year, I shared the VA perspective that there is noStrange look by Molly empirical evidence that service dogs help Veterans with PTSD. In fact, the VA website stated that while studies are underway on the subject, there is concern that service dogs may actually hinder a Veterans progress with PTSD because the dog might do things for the Veteran that the Veteran should learn to do for him/herself.

Criteria of Evidence-Based Treatment Programs 

The VA encourages the Veteran to seek programs that meet the evidence-based treatment criteria. This includes a program supported by independent medical studies, documented evidence of success, and recommended by experts in the field. Examples of these programs include cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure therapy (PE).

Failure of CPT for My Veteran

VA medical experts indicate that these two programs give the Veteran the best chance of success for treatment of PTSD, meeting the criteria listed in the paragraph above. William participated in CPT in a residency VA program several years ago. For him, the program failed miserably, leaving him worse than before he entered the program. As well, the program material read like a primer for elementary school children.

For nearly two years after the CPT program, William fell deeper into depression until we found Molly, his service dog. Molly helped unwind what he learned from the CPT program. She helped his PTSD recovery leaps and bounds beyond CPT and other treatments tried by the VA.

VA’s Position on Service Dogs 

Over one year after the VA website challenged the benefits of service dogs, indicating studies are underway to measure their effectiveness, the website shared no updated information. In its last entry of March 4, 2014, the VA indicated that the studies assessing the benefits of service dogs will take years to complete. Until then, use of service dogs in the treatment of PTSD will be limited.

No Disputing the Benefits of Service Dogs

I am not a medical provider and my research and doctorate are in the field of public administration. Consequently, I cannot dispute the effectiveness or the rigor of CPT or PE as beneficial treatment for PTSD. What I can speak to are the benefits of service dogs for Veterans with PTSD—not from an evidence-based perspective but from dialogues with Veterans, who have service dogs. My husband and I talk regularly with these Veterans. I also hear from many Veterans through the Molly blog about their experiences with service dogs. In every case, the Veteran tells us that the dog is indispensable in helping him/her cope with PTSD and life.

While my approach to understanding the benefits of service dogs does not meet the rigor ofMolly and William on couch scientific study, it provides a basis to suggest that the VA needs to do the work to study the effectiveness of service dogs in the treatment of PTSD–and do it now.

Too many Veterans are losing out on life because the evidence-based treatments either are not working or are not enough to help. It is time to embrace the service animal and build the case for the service dog in treating PTSD.

Post your Comments: 

Have you or your spouse had success with using a service animal to help manage the symptoms of PTSD? Please reply below. 

Photo credits: pculbrethgraft

About the blogger 

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her granddaughter.