The pilot is part of a four-year, $2 million national project funded by the Australian Government, and led by La Trobe’s School of Psychology and Public Health.
It will see eight puppies – a mixture of Lagotto Romagnolos and Labrador Retrievers – adopted by Bendigo staff and students for up to 12 months, while they train to become mental health assistance dogs.
Lead researcher, Dr Tiffani Howell, said the dogs have special dispensation to go virtually everywhere with their owners, including to lectures, offices, libraries, cafes, and on public transport.
“It is important that the dogs get used to all kinds of people and environments, to ensure that they are comfortable in a wide range of settings,” she said.
Dr Howell said it is hoped that the dogs, once living with veterans, will reduce their symptoms of PTSD.
“We expect that the dogs will improve the veterans’ sleep quality, as well as confidence to socialise with others in their community and engage in everyday life,” she said.
The Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia (CSTDA) have selected the puppies and will closely monitor the progress of them and their trainers.
“We are already working closely with veterans, consulting them on their needs, and with the CSTDA to ensure the dog training program responds to those needs,” she said.
Minister for Veterans Affairs’ Darren Chester was pleased to see the trial progressing, with the puppies being selected and fostered in preparation for their new and critical roles supporting veterans.
“Once trained, these dogs will provide much-needed support to those veterans with PTSD selected for the pilot program,” Mr Chester said.
“The Government has committed to putting veterans and their families first, and this trial is an important tool in our efforts to support those who have served our nation in uniform.”
As well as going everywhere with their adoptive owner, the dogs will be socialised for five hours a week by other La Trobe students and staff, known as “dog socialisers”.
Staff and students were carefully selected by the research team to become puppy raisers and socialisers, to ensure the dogs have enough exercise, socialisation and stimulation.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs will oversee the trial, along with a team of experts in dog training, the human-dog relationship, risk management, PTSD, and veteran mental health issues.
Pending the outcome of the pilot, the program will be rolled out on La Trobe’s Melbourne campus later this year.