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Attentional bias towards aversive stimuli has been demonstrated in the anxiety disorders and in posttraumatic stress disorder, and attentional bias modification has been proposed as a candidate treatment. This study rigorously assessed attentional bias towards aversive and pleasant visual imagery associated with the presence or absence of a familiar service canine in 23 veterans with chronic military-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Participants were repeatedly tested with and without their service canines present on two tasks designed to elicit spontaneous visual attention to facial and scenic image pairs, respectively. Each stimulus contrasted an emotive image with a neutral image. Via eye-tracking, the difference in visual attention directed to each image was analyzed as a function of the valence contrast and presence/absence of the canine. Across both tasks, the presence of a familiar service canine attenuated the normative attentional bias towards aversive image content. In the facial task, presence of the service canine specifically reduced attention toward angry faces. In that task, as well, accumulated days with the service canine similarly modulated attention toward facial emotion. The results suggest that the presence of a familiar service canine is associated with attenuation of attentional bias to aversive stimuli in chronic military-service-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Questions remain regarding the generalization of such effects to other populations, their dependence on the familiarity, breed, and training of the canine, and on social context.


Steven H Woodward, Andrea L Jamison, Sasha Gala, Tyson H Holmes. Canine companionship is associated with modification of attentional bias in posttraumatic stress disorder. PloS one. 2017;12(10):e0179912

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PMID: 29020064

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