The Warrior Canine Connection

An organization called Warrior Canine Connection has hit on something and the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs are taking notice.  Meg Daley, a researcher, and Rick Yount, a VA clinician in California, were pioneers in discovering that the emotional bond that a service member forms with a dog can lead to significant amelioration of PTSD.  The program provides service dogs to veterans. The dogs are trained by veterans who are being treated for PTSD and TBI at Walter Reed—the trainers get better too.

Meg Daley had written a book called Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond (DaCapo, 2009). According to Daley, her research explained “how friendly interaction with dogs can release a powerful brain chemistry in people that inspires our profound sense of attachment to dogs. It also happens to increase our sense of trust in each other and reduces fear and anxiety”. Yount and Daley felt that her research explained why Yount’s intuitive use of dogs as co-therapists in his work with traumatized people was having such positive effects.

Researcher Daley felt that Yount’s therapy dogs were helping wounded warriors because “He had hit on the perfect blend of nurturing and social contact that can trigger the brain chemistry that can best combat PTSD.”

This sounds like a wonderful program to me, and as a psychoanalyst it makes perfect sense.  Analysts have known, through our work with patients over the last 100 years, that nurturing bonds are indeed what create well functioning brain systems and repair them when they’re ruptured. To a psychoanalyst, the therapeutic relationship is the sine qua non of any healing of troubled minds.  Sine qua non means, literally “without which not” – a condition that is absolutely essential to some process occurring.

Yet, when I read news reports, organizational missions and documents on the treatment of PTSD and the larger issue of welcoming home veterans from our wars, including the recent Institute of Medicine report (see August 2012 post), I rarely if ever see mention of the crucial component of human relationships, with their curative affective and linguistic bond.  Emphasis is on “training soldiers to be resilient”.  Or, “making sure that every person with PTSD receives an evidenced based treatment and follow up.” People don’t get better until hey feel another living being understands them, really knows them, and cares about what they are going through.  Dogs are wonderful.  My dog Shelby is more soulful and tender than a lot of people I know.  She would never willingly hurt anyone.  She is soothing to be around.  So I applaud the work of these creative and devoted people behind Warrior Canine Connection.

I just wish that in the current climate, where there is great and genuine concern for the well-being of our military personnel, veterans and their loved ones, that there was much more awareness of the importance of human bonds in devising effective therapeutic and community based interventions.

Prudy Gourguechon, M.D.