Ashley O’Connor, University of Alaska Anchorage – Veterans and Service Dogs

Pets can play a huge role in getting through a stressful situation.

Ashley O’Connor, assistant professor of social work at the University of Alaska Anchorage, discusses why.

Ashley O’Connor is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). She teaches research and trauma interventions in the BSW program, and created and taught a course on human-animal interactions for BSW and MSW students. She received her MSW from Boston College in 2010, her Ph.D. from the University of Denver in 2018, and holds her clinical social work license. Prior to her work at UAA, she was employed at various VA hospitals around the country for 10 years and coordinated a study that paired mental health dogs with veterans with PTSD, as well as worked with student veterans. Her current research interests include the impact of physical fitness and animals on veterans who experienced trauma. She is also studying the impact of dogs and humane education on children of military parents who have been deployed.

Veterans and Service Dogs

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I worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 10 years and saw, first hand, the need for different ways of working with individuals who have experienced trauma.  I worked on a research study that paired service and emotional support dogs with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder. The veterans often brought up how the dogs gave them unconditional love, a sense of purpose, and a way to keep a routine.

Animals have a strong positive impact on humans’ mental and physical health – especially during difficult times.

Merely petting or playing with a dog can reduce stress by releasing oxytocin, a natural hormone in the body; and neurotransmitters that stabilize mood and help with happiness like serotonin and dopamine can increase. Interactions with animals can lead to a decrease in blood pressure, relax muscle tension, and can help breathing become more regular.

With more than 36 million Americans out of work, and countless others having disruptions to life, some have lost a sense of meaning and routine.  Individuals are accustomed to having a specific role in society, and losing a daily routine is difficult.  But pets can help their parents keep a schedules. Pets don’t know that a pandemic is happening; they still wake up at the same time every day, want their regular meals, want attention and affection.

Many of the veterans I worked with told, would tell me something similar to, “I used to stay in bed until noon, but now that I have a dog, he needs me to be up at 8 o’clock, and it doesn’t really matter how I’m feeling.”

Pets help us remember that even though things are difficult right now, one can still have some type of routine and purpose.

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