Post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly referred to as PTSD, is an epidemic impacting millions of Americans every year. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly 8% of our population will have some form of PTSD during their lifetime, with about 8 million reported cases annually.
Men, women and even children can fall prey to this mental health affliction, usually after experiencing a traumatic event or witnessing a loved one endure a hardship. PTSD can become a burden by affecting people with panic attacks, sudden mood swings, difficulty in social settings, and an overall inability to return to life as it was before the distressing event occurred.
However, there’s good news: In recent years, man’s favorite four-legged accomplice—the dog, of course—has been shown to provide life-altering advantages to those who struggle with PTSD symptoms. Service and therapy dogs have been expanding their skills over the last few decades, and although research supporting service dogs who specialize in assisting those with PTSD is relatively new, many people are finding their experience working with their dog to be nothing short of incredible.
This guide is designed to shed light on the fascinating ways service dogs are helping people with PTSD live fuller, happier lives. You will find information on how dogs are chosen for this critical role, what tasks they are trained to do, and the many benefits they offer to owners. Additionally, you’ll find resources on how to get your own canine companion if you feel you may benefit from this special assistance.
Characteristics of a Quality PTSD Service Dog
Generally speaking, dogs are very loving, devoted creatures whose essence has made them man’s best friend for centuries. There are many assets dogs seem to be born with that enable them to support those with PTSD, but there are also specific merits that trainers look for when considering a dog for this important role. The following resources provide information on some of these “purebred” qualities.
The very act of pet parenthood has mental health benefits, according to the American Psychological Association. Although these service dogs are trained to care for their handlers in many capacities, the owner is also responsible for the wellbeing of his animal. The dog’s role in instilling a nurturing ability in her owner will make him feel accomplished in his role as a pet parent.
Because service dogs must have the right personality and qualities in order to care for someone with PTSD, many dogs are considered for the job. Some of the most important qualities a dog must demonstrate are sociability with other people and animals, the intuition to anticipate her owner’s needs, and a sweet but not overly-excited disposition.
Because of the nonjudgmental nature of dogs, they are biologically equipped to help humans emerge from the protective walls that may have been emotionally constructed as a result of PTSD. Although this is an innate quality in dogs, trainers work to hone these skills in their pooch trainees, so that even the most closed-off individual will feel more inspired to be more social and open with family and friends.
Dogs are inherently protective of their pack. In your dog’s eyes, you are the pack leader – it is her responsibility to secure your welfare. A good PTSD service dog carries out her duties to defend you in a nonviolent and nonthreatening way, so you will constantly be reminded that there is a special somebody who always has your best interests at heart.
What PTSD Service Dogs are Trained to Do
Dogs can be trained as service dogs or provide emotional support as therapy dogs. The main difference between these two breeds of dogs are the kind of assistance they provide to their owners, and what kind of rights they’ll have in public. According to the ADA, a service dog is one that has been trained to help someone with an emotional or physical disability that impacts one or more major life activities. If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, you and your certifiably trained service dog may be protected under this act. Emotionally supportive therapy dogs, although life-changing companions, are usually not protected by the ADA, because they haven’t been formally trained to assist in aiding you in your daily tasks, such as taking medication or overcoming anxiety issues. Whatever education your dog receives, there are several important functions she will perform to help ensure your wellbeing.
Service dogs must have a primary focus on their owner. Although the bond between dog and human is strong and loving, the dog is still on the clock full-time to be alert to cues that indicate her owner is in danger. Even in a social setting where there may be a lot of distractions, the dog must be able to drop everything should her owner suddenly find himself in the midst of a panic attack.
Dogs can be trained to provide a sense of security to war veterans with specific anxieties. For example, some physically and emotionally wounded warriors fear walking down the street or even shopping for groceries, because their PTSD is triggered by not knowing what may be hiding around the next block or supermarket aisle. Dogs are trained to be a protective set of eyes for their owner, so they can confirm there is no danger around the bend and prevent an anxiety attack.
Dogs are trained to watch over you around the clock. One of the most troubling effects of PTSD may be the tendency for having nightmares or issues falling asleep. But PTSD service dogs’ duties to your wellbeing don’t set with the sun. They are trained to wake you from nightmares by being alert to night terror indicators. Many people living with PTSD also report that the very presence of their dog in their room at night brings them the comfort they need to fall asleep.
Many military veterans with PTSD were used to being a leader and giving orders during their service. Dogs are naturally loyal and obedient to their owners, and the very act of giving your dog a command can be helpful in transitioning from life in the field to returning home. PTSD service dogs are trained to obey specific commands, but can also be taught additional tricks and obedience orders by owners.
Benefits of Owning a PTSD Service Dog
Dogs with a degree in PTSD service receive comprehensive training by specialists who are familiar with the many obstacles posed by this disorder. Living with this unique service animal offers a variety of benefits. The following resources provide insight on the wide array of services this special dog has to offer.
Therapy dogs are trained to calm someone having an anxiety or panic attack.These remarkable animals have been educated to look for indicators of an impending meltdown, such as crying, incessant fidgeting or twitching, or stomping. The dog takes action to comfort and soothe her owner by “hugging” or nestling up on him, or even using her paws or head to block the individual from hitting or harming himself.
Dogs can help ensure that their partners are taking medication. PTSD is a complex disorder that is often treated with both therapy and medication. Therapy dogs are trained to retrieve medication and bring it to owners in bite-proof containers.
A dog is trained to alert her owner to sounds that may go unnoticed in the event of a panic attack.For example, if a smoke detector goes off in the middle of an episode, and the PTSD sufferer is too distraught to notice it, the dog may bark in addition to taking action to calm the person down to indicate they need to evacuate the building. They are also trained to lead their human out of the house by gently biting onto a sleeve or pant leg and guiding the handler to safety.
Therapy dogs can help prevent future issues like substance abuse. This resource points out that having emotional support is crucial for individuals suffering from mental health issues like PTSD. While this aid can come from fellow humans, having the unconditional love and assistance of a trained service dog can keep emotional issues at bay and help thwart drug or alcohol dependencies that some people may turn to as a way of coping.
They give PTSD sufferers the confidence to live their lives more independently. Because PTSD can often leave people with unprovoked feelings of devastation or fear, sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning can seem like too much to handle. Because these dogs are trained to help owners overcome their issues at home and elsewhere, PTSD victims feel like their illness isn’t as big of a setback, and find it’s easier to participate in and enjoy their daily lives.
Resources for Finding a Service Dog
There are many organizations with a passion for partnering people suffering from PTSD with a companion dog to help accommodate their needs. The following resources provide helpful information on some of the groups that train these special pups and pair them with individuals in need. Additionally, you may benefit from speaking with your psychiatrist or psychologist, and veterans may wish to speak with a local Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) chapter, as these resources may have details on city and state programs that can support your effort in obtaining a four-legged friend.
Service Dogs for America trains PTSD service dogs, and has strict criteria for both the dogs and trainers who raise them.
Paws for Veterans matches war veterans with PTSD service dogs, and then trains both parties on how to work together as effective, cooperative teammates.
Dog Wish trains all kinds of service dogs for people of all walks of life. One of the founders of this organization understands the value of dogs in managing PTSD from having personal experience with the condition.
New Horizons Service Dogs provides PTSD service dogs to retired servicemen and servicewomen, as well as others suffering from PTSD.
Additionally, our article on finding your perfect service or therapy dog offers many ways to meet your ideal canine match, and also lists programs for receiving funding for you and your partner pup.
PTSD can be a devastating diagnosis, but because we have acquired a better understanding of its underlying causes and symptoms over the last several years, there are more options than ever on how to treat it. Thanks to the wonderful research on dogs aiding PTSD patients, a new world of possibilities has opened to those wishing to live a more well-rounded, independent life.