Service Dog Pilot Study
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. What is a mental health service dog?
A1. Mental Health Service Dogs (service dogs) are extensively trained to respond precisely to specific disabilities of their owners including individuals with mental health diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Service Dogs are trained to detect and intervene when their handler is anxious; contribute to a feeling of safety for their handler; and promote a sense of relaxation and socialization.
Q2. Why did VAC fund a pilot study on service dogs?
A2. There is great interest in using service dogs to assist Veterans with mental health conditions. However, research in this area is limited and necessary to evaluate if service dogs can be used as a safe and effective support for Veterans with PTSD.
This pilot study responded to the commitment of the Veterans Affairs Canada Suicide Prevention Strategy Action Plan item 7.11, (part of the Canadian Armed Forces and VAC Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy) to increase knowledge of the role of service dogs in helping Veterans with a mental health condition.
Q3. What are the study’s findings?
A3. Among the 18 Veterans with PTSD who had a service dog for 12 months and who completed the full 18-month study period showed:
- slightly increased their physical activity – logging more daily steps and spending less time in sedentary activity;
- reported fewer nightmares and improved sleep quality (participants felt they slept better, fell asleep more quickly and slept more hours per night);
- had a reduction in PTSD symptoms (e.g, cognitive intrusions and hyper-arousal) with the majority experiencing a very significant decrease;
- had a moderate, long-lasting reduction in depressive symptoms;
- did not reduce overall use of medication;
- reported increases in certain quality of life domains;
- experienced a significant increase in venturing into their communities and feeling more comfortable in public places (mostly starting after 6 months of having the service dog); and
- maintained their dependency on a family member or other caregiver (as reported by the caregiver).
As part of this study, the research team also interviewed a separate group of 10 Veterans who have had a service dog for 2-4 years to document their experiences. Their observations included:
- the 3 main roles of the service dog reported were: acting as a socialization agent; contributing to a feeling of safety; and detecting and intervening when the Veteran is anxious, depressed or aggressive;
- key tasks of their service dog included alerting a Veteran to identify when he/she is experiencing intrusive symptoms (i.e. detecting and waking the veteran up before or during a nightmare); reminding Veteran of a task to be accomplished if he/she gets disoriented; identifying and informing the Veteran about the physical elements in his/her surroundings (incoming persons, perceived threats, etc.); and maintaining an appropriate free space around the Veteran;
- having a service dog increased the Veteran’s outings to carry out daily living activities and also increased participation in family-oriented activities;
- all Veterans experienced at least one instance where they were asked to leave or had to avoid public spaces due to having the service dog;
- the Veterans noted that a qualified mental health practitioner should be involved to support the Veteran before, during and after the service dog’s acquisition/training period; and
- educational efforts geared towards the general population and mental health practitioners on the use of service dog by Veterans with PTSD are required.
For more details:
Service Dog Pilot Study Results
Evaluating the effectiveness of service dogs for Veterans with PTSD
Results: The reported impacts for 18 veterans with PTSD after acquiring a service dog, include:
- Decreased nightmares, improved sleep and a slight increase in physical activity
- No reduction in medication use
- Moderate, long lasting reduction in depressive symptoms
- Improved Quality of Life, More social integration to the community
- Decreased PTSD symptoms
- No Reductions in reliance on a caregiver
Q4. Who conducted the pilot study?
A4. A research team, led by Dr. Claude Vincent of Laval University, conducted the pilot study. The project was contracted through the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Health Research (CIMVHR).
Q5. How did the pilot study work?
A5. The pilot study examined the effects of acquiring a service dog on psychiatric symptoms, daily/social functioning and quality of life for Veterans with PTSD. Study participants were followed over the course of an 18-month period (i.e., 6 months prior to receiving the service dog to 12 months after acquisition) with regular check-ins points throughout the duration of the study.
A second component of the study involved interviews with a separate group of 10 Veterans who have had a service dog for 2-4 years to document their experiences.
Q6. Why were there two study groups?
A6. The two groups allowed the researchers to examine both the impact of receiving a service dog for Veterans who did not previously have a service dog, as well gather information based on the experiences of having a service dog for a number of years.
Q7. How many Veterans participated in the pilot study?
A7. While 31 Veterans initially agreed to participate in the study, the final results are based on the 18 Veterans that completed the full 18-month study period. Seven opted out before the study began and 6 others did not complete the full study length for various reasons. This included a spouse’s allergic reaction to the dog and changing their mind about wanting a service dog.
Q8. Why did the pilot project only involve Veterans with PTSD?
A8. To date, most of the interest expressed by Veterans, service dog organizations and the public has focused on using service dogs for assisting Veterans with PTSD. Also, focusing on one mental health condition helped ensure that the findings are useful.
Q9. What happened to the dogs after the pilot project ended?
A9. The dog will remain with the Veteran, if the dog is a suitable match with the Veteran.
Q10. Given the positive outcomes observed in this study, will VAC start paying for service dogs for Veterans with PTSD?
A10. The study had promising results, but it had a very small sample size – started with 31 Veterans and finished with 18 – so we do need to review this data and fully understand it before making policy decisions. The pilot study report and its findings are being reviewed by Departmental officials and will be used to inform policy decisions related to service dogs. As a result of a Budget 2018 initiative, individuals who rely on a specially trained service animal to assist in coping with their mental health condition may qualify for Canada Revenue Agency’s Medical Expense Tax Credit (METC), effective January 2018. For more information, please visit: Canada Revenue Agency’s Medical Expense Tax Credit.
To obtain a copy of the report, please contact the Research Directorate at