Post-traumatic stress disorder may result from a single encounter with trauma or from a series of traumatic episodes. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can greatly impact a person’s quality of life and ability to function. Symptoms can include nightmares, flashbacks, and avoidance of triggering memories. Other symptoms may include agitation, irritability, anxiety, or isolating behaviors.
Specially trained service dogs can help people who are diagnosed with PTSD by identifying and interfering with maladaptive behaviors, alleviating trauma linked to triggers, and helping to improve coping mechanisms.
How They Can Help
PTSD service dogs are meant to provide a calming atmosphere of safety and security while reducing the impact of symptoms on a person’s everyday functioning. They provide affection, reassurance, comfort, and friendship. The dogs can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, raise levels of serotonin, and decrease blood pressure.
They are specially trained to learn alert tasks. These tasks include letting a person know when someone is approaching or when blood pressure or stress hormones are rising and signaling the onset of a panic attack. They can also learn how to signal bystanders if an individual is experiencing distress.
PTSD service dogs are trained in interruption tasks, which interfere with flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, or self-harming behaviors. They learn how to help an individual awake from nightmares or night terrors when they occur and are taught to ease anxiety and distress.
Service dogs distract their owners from unhealthy behaviors by nudging, providing their paws, or leaning on them. Other interruption tactics include licking a person’s face or hands, lying across a person’s chest, nuzzling, or initiating distracting play.
The dogs also learn movement tasks, which help with crowd control, physically blocking a person, or checking certain areas to alert a person that it is safe to proceed. They can alleviate panic in crowded or highly stimulating environments by using their body to create a sense of safety. The service dog may either stand in front of a person or circle them to create personal space. In addition, they are taught to move in a way that creates pressure on certain body parts to alleviate stress.
Service dogs are educated in guide tasks, where they learn to navigate a person away from stressful or crowded places or from an identified trigger. It can help a person to safely leave a place or event when they are having a panic attack or experiencing high levels of anxiety.
PTSD service dogs learn to perform call tasks, where they can call 911, a suicide hotline, a mental health clinician, or another support person from a pre-programmed phone. In emergencies, a service dog can be trained to get help by setting off an emergency button or alert system when an individual is in trouble. It can also be trained to bring medication by command or when alerted through a timer or alarm.
PTSD Service Dog Requirements
There are certain characteristics that dogs must have for them to be eligible to become PTSD dogs. They must be inherently cooperative, intuitive, and obedient. They must have a calm temperament, show low reactivity, and be perceptive. Service dogs must start specialized training when they are still puppies and are commonly matched to specific owners to ensure success.
There are many benefits for sufferers of PTSD in incorporating the use of service dogs into their lives. It is important to note that a PTSD service dog should be used in conjunction with therapy or medication and is not enough to treat symptoms of PTSD on its own. It is also critical for a person to get a service dog only when they can provide care for it. It would be counterproductive for one to obtain a service dog when they are not ready, as it would only cause increased levels of stress and anxiety.
- Rodriguez, K. E., LaFollette, M. R., Hediger, K., Ogata, N., & O’Haire, M. E. (2020). Defining the PTSD Service Dog Intervention: Perceived Importance, Usage, and Symptom Specificity of Psychiatric Service Dogs for Military Veterans. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01638
- Kloep, M. L., Hunter, R. H., & Kertz, S. J. (2017). Examining the effects of a novel training program and use of psychiatric service dogs for military-related PTSD and associated symptoms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 87(4), 425–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000254
- Yarborough, B. J. H., Stumbo, S. P., Yarborough, M. T., Owen-Smith, A., & Green, C. A. (2018). Benefits and challenges of using service dogs for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 41(2), 118–124. https://doi.org/10.1037/prj0000294
- LaFollette, M. R., Rodriguez, K. E., Ogata, N., & E., M. (2019). Military Veterans and Their PTSD Service Dogs: Associations Between Training Methods, PTSD Severity, Dog Behavior, and the Human-Animal Bond. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6, 431718. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2019.00023