Linzi Williamson, a PhD Candidate in the Applied Social Psychology Program, received a SCPOR traineeship that gave her the chance to work alongside Dr. Colleen Dell, Centenniial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness at the University of Saskatchewan. Their project is an innovative patient-oriented research study looking at the impact of Service Dogs on the lives of veterans who problematically use opioids and other substances.
-By Farha Akhtar
Photo by Chris Plishka
Dogs have always been a big part of Linzi Williamson’s life. She says she used to think she had a fairly solid understanding of dog psychology and basic dog training having owned several dogs growing up, as well as having cared for the dogs of close friends and colleagues. She admits it was only after she began service dog training with AUDEAMUS as part of her trainee experience that she realized there was so much more to learn.
As part of her involvement in this unique CIHR and CRISM funded project, Linzi has the chance to work alongside fellow researchers and veterans who are working together to better understand the ways service dogs can have an impact on veterans who problematically use opioids and other substances. Much of that work has so far involved actually training animals to be certified service dogs.
“It has been challenging and exhausting because in order to teach the dogs I have been working with, I’ve had to learn a new set of skills.”
“I have also learned there is so much that the dogs can teach us as their handlers, for example patience and forgiveness.”
The project has also allowed Linzi the opportunity to work in patient-oriented research, which in this case means the veterans are actively engaged in the research.
“I love the co-creation of knowledge and the working side-by-side element,” says Linzi.
“I've been a researcher for close to 10 years now, and considering all of the projects I've worked on, none come close to the magic encapsulated within this project.”
“I believe that the core foundational training I have as a researcher prepared me in some way for this experience, but I don't think I really had a clue how great community-based participatory research could be.
“Without the veterans there would be no project,” Dr.Colleen Dell, the project’s co-Principal Investigator adds.
“We have worked with veterans in the AUDEAMUS program in various capacities, doing knowledge translation, doing talks at different universities. We have had veterans come and speak in my class and at a St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program event.”
“They have been central to the study.”
Veterans such as Paul de Groot, a retired Captain in the Canadian Military, have been involved in a wide range of the study’s activities, from speaking at presentations, to analyzing data and helping develop research questions. He says it has been exciting to be part of the research and that the project has allowed him to do things he never would have thought he would have been able to do.
“Before, I would never have talked. I would have isolated. This just opens me up a little bit more. I’m with a group of people just like me.”
“There were three of us in that one classroom,” he says recalling one speaking engagement in Colleen’s addictions class at the University of Saskatchewan, “There were three different levels of military management there, different styles and structures and yet we all have mental health issues.”
“We were all able to tell people what it’s like going through the red tape of Veterans Affairs. It’s been really good for us to bring that forward.”
Linzi says she has felt honored to work alongside the veterans, whom she says have inspired her with their strength and resilience despite living with challenging physical and mental health issues.
“Despite being mentally and physically exhausted after each training, I have felt filled up, content, and excited to keep building my skills. I have also felt humbled working alongside individuals who have been mastering the training even with issues that have previously held them back, such as symptoms from their PTSD.”
Another highlight of Linzi’s trainee experience was the chance to present the research at the national Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) Summit in Ottawa last fall. This year there’s been growing momentum around the research the team is doing. They have submitted an article about prescription misuse by veterans to an addictions journal, and they’ve recently received funding from Saskatchewan’s Royal University Hospital Foundation to look at St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs and the Emergency Department. The team also plans to expand the study.
Despite these huge successes, Linzi acknowledges there are still skeptics in the research world who doubt the effectiveness service dogs can actually have. Though, for Linzi, the benefits are very real.
“I know that other researchers are skeptical, but something is happening.”
“These individuals are able to achieve tasks and have experiences they haven't had in years, sometimes decades. Now with the dogs in their lives, they're able to either get back to where they were before or they're able to walk a brand new path.”
“Now it is the job of the research team to translate that "something" into tangible and valid evidence with all of the data we have collected this last year. I'm looking forward to getting these findings out there and continuing with this line of research so that even more people can be helped.”