Defence vets with PTSD offered helping paw

Assistance dogs are trained to perform tasks that help in veterans' clinical recovery.
Assistance dogs are trained to perform tasks that help in veterans' clinical recovery.

At just six-months-old, assistance dog Saffi knows exactly what to do if her owner is having a panic attack.

She will jump on their chest and lean in close in an effort to make them feel safe and grounded.

Saffi is one of 20 dogs being specially trained to help Australian military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder as part of a $2 million, four-year trial program by the federal government and La Trobe University.

Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester visited the university's Melbourne campus on Tuesday to get an update on the trial's progress - and sneak a cuddle from Saffi and her fluffy friend Harlow.

Mr Chester said he was confident the program would help save lives.

"It's not acceptable in Australia ... that 3000 people take their own lives this year. We need to do better than that and we can do better than that and projects like this can help," he told reporters.

"I'm very confident that as this work continues we're going to see more dogs working with our veteran community and other people in the community to assist them to live their very best lives."

Unlike pet dogs, assistance dogs are trained to perform tasks that help in veterans' clinical recovery, La Trobe University's Pauleen Bennett said.

"If a veteran is having a panic attack, which is quite a common thing to do, and a dog will sit on them, that pressure of the dog lying on their chest just helps to ground them and remind them what's happening in the world and to come back and focus on that."

Each participating veteran has been matched with a dog based on their specific needs as well as personal preference.

There are a range of breeds involved in the program, including small fluffy canines who can offer reassurance during air flights, to bigger specimens like Saffi the labrador.

As the trial enters its second phase, organisers need more Melbourne-based veterans to get involved.

"We've only just started working with the veterans but we've seen immediate benefits," Prof Bennett said.

"It gives them a reason to get out of bed in the morning, they're looking forward to where they're going to be in 12 months when they get their own dog."

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Australian Associated Press