There for Each Other – Relationships Between Humans and Dogs on Search and Rescue Teams
Search and rescue (SAR) teams, consisting of specially trained dogs and their handlers, play an incredibly important role in emergency response in the United States. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, SAR teams were a visible presence at the World Trade Center (WTC) site, helping to find people still trapped within the towers. They saved lives, and they raised hope.
SAR teams perform incredibly important, and incredibly stressful, work. However, until recently, there has been little research on how the stresses of search and rescue affect the health of the humans and dogs performing it. That’s why Dr. Melissa Hunt, and her colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, set out to investigate the health of the SAR teams who worked at the WTC site on 9/11. She wanted to know whether working at such an extraordinary event, which was emotionally devastating to an entire nation, affected their lives differently than other experiences in emergency settings. As such, she compared the health of SAR teams who had been deployed on 9/11 to similar teams who had not been involved in work at the towers.
Earlier research had shown that human members of SAR teams working at the WTC site had surprisingly low levels of psychological distress, particularly when compared to other emergency workers. The scientists hypothesized that might be because handlers work with dogs, and companion animals are known to help with managing stress. However, that research only looked at one half of the SAR team, and Dr. Hunt and her fellow investigators wanted to know more about the interactions between the humans and their dogs. As such, they set out to determine whether handlers’ worries about the health of their dogs might affect their own health, in light of the risks known to be present at the WTC site. They also investigated how the lives of the dogs might be affected by the mental health of their handlers.
Amazingly, from a mental health perspective, the long-term effects of working at the WTC site were not so very different than the long-term effects of simply being an emergency worker. Although deployment after 9/11 was associated with a small increase in PTSD diagnoses shortly after the experience, by three years later that increased risk had disappeared. The mental health of deployed handlers was not noticeably different than those who had not been involved in those rescue efforts. In fact, the main work-related risk for PTSD was long-term employment in an emergency profession, not deployment at any particular stressful event. Unsurprisingly, the other factor that significantly increased depression and PTSD symptoms in handlers was having a dog who became sick or died.
Interestingly, shifting of the bond between dog and handler did not only affect the humans. Changes in the health of human handlers also affected the well-being of their dogs. Dogs who worked with humans who were depressed, or showed signs of PTSD, had significantly more behavioral problems than those who worked with mentally healthy humans. One year after their humans began to show signs of problems, these dogs were more likely to have separation anxiety, be excitable, and chase other dogs. By two years out, dogs handled by people with PTSD were more likely to be aggressive, both towards humans and towards other dogs.
This study, supported by the AKC Canine Health Foundation, has provided empirical evidence that canine-human SAR teams are not only there for us, they’re there for each other. Now it’s time for the community to be there for them as well. It takes support and training for handlers to build the resilience they need to see both themselves and their dogs through each crisis. Helping human handlers cope with the heavy emotional demands of emergency work isn’t only good for them; it may be the best way to improve the health and wellbeing of their dogs as well.
This work was funded by AKC Canine Health Foundation Grant 961.
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