Assistance dogs for military veterans with PTSD: a systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-synthesis
Psychiatric assistance dogs for military veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) currently make up over 19% of assistance dog partnerships globally. We conducted a systematic review of the literature relating to these partnerships, with specific aims to (1) summarize their characteristics, (2) evaluate the quality of existing evidence, and (3) summarize outcomes. A total of 432 records were independently screened (Cohen’s kappa=0.90). Of these, 41 articles (29 peer-reviewed publications and 12 unpublished dissertations) met inclusion criteria. Data extraction was conducted to address the research aims, including a meta-analysis (quantitative outcomes) and meta-synthesis (qualitative outcomes). All peer-reviewed publications on the topic of psychiatric assistance dogs for veterans with PTSD were published within the last five years. The majority of included articles were quantitative (53%), 41% were qualitative, and 6% employed mixed methods. Mean methodological rigor scores were 80% for peer reviewed articles and 71% for dissertations, where higher scores represent more rigorous methodology. Quantitative articles reported significant improvements in the domains of PTSD severity, mental health, and social health. Impacts on physical health and global quality of life appear inconclusive. Meta-analysis (9 articles) revealed that partnership with an assistance dog had a clinically meaningful, significant, and large effect on PTSD severity scores (g=−1.129; p<0.0001). Qualitative meta-synthesis identified two third order constructs: (1) Impact on the individual: mental & physical health and (2) Impact beyond the individual: building relationships & connection. This synthesis of increasingly prevalent research on assistance dogs for veterans with PTSD provides support for the impact of this complementary and integrative health intervention on PTSD symptom severity, and signs of meaningful improvements in adjacent domains including mental and social health. Gaps between quantitative and qualitative findings, along with the need to report greater demographic detail, highlight key opportunities for future research.