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A President’s Best Friend: Why Bush and Other Veterans Benefit from Service Dogs Like Sully
Dozens of media outlets have published the photo of late President George H.W. Bush’s service dog Sully sitting beside his casket. Sully will stay with the Bush family until President Bush is buried in Texas on Thursday, and he’ll join the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s Facility Dog Program after the holidays.
Why are service dogs so valuable to their owners, especially veterans working to manage or overcome post-traumatic stress disorder?
Dessa Bergen-Cico is an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Syracuse University’s Falk College who has extensively researched the impact of dog ownership on veterans with PTSD.
“One of the reasons the picture of Sully the Service Dog is so impactful is because almost everyone who has had a personal interaction with a dog can attest to the emotional connection and unconditional love dogs have with humans. Now we have scientific research that provides evidence of the positive and measurable impact service dogs have on people and military veterans in particular.
“Our recently published research, ‘Dog Ownership and Training Reduces Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms and Increases Self-Compassion Among Veterans,’ followed veterans who were paired with service dogs for one year through the Dogs2Vets program. We found significant improvements in self-compassion and significant reductions in their PTSD symptoms, levels of stress, isolation, and self-judgment. During this time we also followed veterans who were waiting for a service dog and their symptoms did not improve, in fact they became worse.
“Based on media reports, the late President George H.W. Bush, like many brave veterans, suffered some trauma from when his plane was shot down during WWII. Interviews with President Bush conducted more than 75 years after his harrowing fighter plane crash revealed he had some survivors’ guilt, experienced nightmares, and replayed the crash in his mind wondering why he had survived while his two friends and colleagues perished. His experience typifies that of many combat veterans in that they can go on and accomplish much despite their traumatic experiences, but they are also often hard on themselves and suffer.
“Again, our research has shown that not only do service dogs help reduce PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, rumination, guilt and nightmares, the dogs also help their veterans be more self-compassionate and less self-judgmental. Sully may very well have provided that kind of support to President Bush.”
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