Dr. Whitworth and K9 Partners for Patriots are also assisting researchers from the University of South Florida in evaluating similar programs for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. Participants in the service dog training complete assessments at multiple points before, during, and after their participation to measure how they are responding to the program.
K9 Partners for Patriots has also actively participated in and supported two independent studies conducted by Dr. Whitworth and Dr. Scotland-Coogan at Saint Leo University. Findings from the program evaluation and these independent studies, in combination with results from two other recently published controlled investigations, provide evidence supporting the endorsement and use of service dog programs as helpful complementary or alternative treatment options for some veterans with PTSD.
Dr. James Whitworth
James Whitworth is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida. He has taught graduate clinical social work courses for ten years. Dr. Whitworth has also provided private practice counseling for military members, veterans, and their families with depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Lt Colonel (Ret) Whitworth served as a clinical social worker and mental health officer in the US Air Force for 21 years. He is the former Chief of Air Force Family Research at the Pentagon and also worked three years as the Chief of Air Force Family Advocacy Operations and Research. Dr. Whitworth has presented and published research on trauma response/recovery/resilience, PTSD assessment/treatment, alternative treatments for PTSD, family violence and building community capacity within military populations. Dr. Whitworth taught behavioral medicine and research to Family Medicine Residents at Eglin Air Force base for six years.
Read Dr. Scotland-Coogan’s article below which was published in the Tampa Bay Times on June 13, 2017, that addresses key information about understanding PTSD and the role of service dogs in helping these veterans.
Evaluations & Research Studies
Whitworth, J.D., O’Brien, C. Scotland-Coogan, D. E., & Wharton, T. (2020). Understanding Partner Perceptions of a Service Dog Training Program for Veterans with PTSD: Building a Bridge to Trauma Resiliency. Social Work in Mental Health. Advance online publication.
Scotland-Coogan, D.E., Whitworth, J.D., & Wharton, T.C. (2020). Outcomes of participation in a service dog training program for veterans with PTSD. Society & Animals, Advance online publication.
Whitworth, J.D., Scotland-Coogan, D. E., & Wharton, T. (2019). Service dog training programs for veterans with PTSD: Results of a pilot controlled study. Social Work in Health Care, 58(4), 412-430.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
What You Should Know
What is the greatest public misperception about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
- That it is a weakness.
- That someone who suffers with PTSD should be able to “reason” through it, they just aren’t trying.
- That the person who suffers from this is violent and unbalanced
- That there is no treatment that works
- That only one treatment should work
- That these Warriors are simply looking for a disability check.
Is the body of work on PTSD that's available today sufficient to treat it effectively?
- More and more research is being conducted on PTSD. Some of these included exposure therapy (having to relive the traumatic events over and over) and pharmaceuticals (which are stigmatized as a sign of weakness). While both of htese can be effective there is a high dropout rate.
- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), and the newer Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) have also been proven effective. Both of these demonstrate an ability to lessen the effects of problematic traumatic memories without having to talk about them.
From what you've seen and learned from veterans involved with K9P4P, what has surprised you the most?
- That they function as well as they do, given all they must deal with. We have amazing young men and women who have sacrificed so much so that we can be free. They come home from deployment where they had tremendous responsibility and experienced significant risk to their lives (some experienced this psychologically 24/7), to a place which doesn’t really welcome them home. We prepare them greatly for battle, and not properly for their return to civilian life. They are experiencing physical wounds, some of which we cannot see, but there are also psychological wounds that can be every bit as damaging.
- Their desire to be productive and have a purpose. They do not want to rely on the government to take care of them, they want to take care of themselves and their families on their own.
Does your research compare K9P4P with similar programs involving service dogs, and if so, how do K9P4P results compare with others?
- Service dog programs provide a service dog for the veteran after the dog has been trained. K9 Partners for Patriots has them come to the center to train their own dog. This requires them to come out and interact with others, leaving their home which has become their safe haven. Over the 19-week program they begin to heal, develop a sense of self-mastery and trust in themselves and others. They are sleeping better, and are able to go out in public on their own, participate in their childrenâ€™s activities, and socialize. This program is very different from other service dog programs.
- K9P4P uses dogs from the shelters and dogs surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them. This allows for assessing appropriate temperaments and personalities to be a service dog. One veterans shared â€œI saved him, and now he is saving me.â€
If Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin was standing here today and asked for your advice for the VAs national effort to curb the suicide rate among veterans and those with PTSD what would you tell him?
What do we learn about PTSD from the spouses or children of veterans with PTSD?
- How hard it is to live every day walking on egg shells around someone with severe anxiety.
- That the family feels unloved.
- That the families have also sacrificed for our country in many ways.
- They don’t understand that the behaviors are a symptom of PTSD, and not who the person really is.
- They just want the person back as they were before they were deployed.
- When the family is educated about PTSD they become more compassionate toward their loved one.
Your research includes pre- and post-training assessments of the veterans who go through the K9P4P program. In layman's terms, what is the purpose of that work and what does it tell you about the program?
- The purpose of these assessments is to determine the effectiveness and benefits of participating in a program training their own service dog. I wanted to test trauma symptoms the first day of their classes, and then again after completing their final class to identify the change in their symptoms during the training process, which has been anywhere from 14-19 weeks.
- What the statistics are showing is that this program is improving symptoms of PTSD in a way which we never thought imaginable. As a therapist, I can say I have never seen PTSD symptom relief happen so quickly and consistently.
If health professionals still wrestle with unanswered questions or issues that are not fully understood, what might some of those be?
- How to encourage those with PTSD to seek and continue to participate in treatment. Many will not seek treatment due to the stigmatization about mental health issues in the military. Among those who do seek treatment, many will drop out.
- What treatment will work best for their client?
How would you define "success" where PTSD management is concerned?
- Success starts with seeking help. We feel that providing them with services they need is our way of serving, and it brings us joy to see them start to emerge from the devastation of PTSD.
- Being able to have meaningful relationships again, develop the ability to trust others.
- To be comfortable enough to go out in public without experiencing extreme anxiety.
- Being able ot sleep at night, with minimal intrusion of nighmares
- To not have suicidal ideation.
- Feeling a sense of purpose again, and hope for the future.
How do you counsel veterans about managing their own hopes and expectations?
- The first step is to educate them about PTSD, what is going on inside of them. They need to stop seeing themselves as broken; and instead, understand that their brain did exactly what it was supposed to do to keep them safe in combat. They trained for combat, now thyeÂ need to train to be home.
- They must see themselves separate from PTSD; it is not who they are, it is whatÂ they are struggling with.
- I try to get them to see that they may not be able ot visualize what their life could be because of the symptoms of PTSD, but if they will trust the process, they can take control away from the symptoms of PTSD and start to live their lives again.