SAN DIEGO -- Tori Stitt is among the many thousands of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose post-traumatic stress disorder cases are considered chronic: so severe that treating the disorder into remission through standard practices is expected to take many years.
It is not surprising, then, that many of those veterans are turning to alternative treatments like yoga, acupuncture, herbal remedies and massage therapy. None have proved more popular than service dogs.
Medications and therapy have helped Stitt cope with, though not overcome, the depression, sleeplessness and anxiety caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. But nothing has been more important to her recovery, she says, than Devon, the amiable golden retriever that has become her constant companion.
"It doesn't matter what bad things are going on, I can pet Devon, give him a hug, and they turn around 180 degrees," said Stitt, a former Navy officer who did a tour in Iraq.
There is little scientific data showing that dogs relieve the symptoms of PTSD, though several research projects are under way. And skeptics say that dogs cannot possibly treat the underlying disorder, where memories of traumatic events trigger potentially debilitating symptoms. But many PTSD experts say that there is much anecdotal evidence that dogs make veterans feel better -- and that may be enough.
"If the point is to treat a person into remission, we have no evidence that service dogs can do that," said Alan L. Peterson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and director of Strong Star, a research consortium on PTSD. "But in terms of just coping, they might help."
Organizations have sprouted up in many military towns to provide dogs at little or no cost to veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Businesses and nonprofit groups created to train dogs for the blind or autistic have shifted into veterans services.
And Congress has ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the effectiveness of service dogs as PTSD therapy, with some lawmakers looking to require the government to help finance training, which can cost more than $15,000 a dog.
"America wants to take care of its veterans," said Lu Picard, founder of East Coast Assistance Dogs, which trains service dogs. "So it can be easier to raise money for a veteran than for a man who has a spinal injury from a car accident."