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 of PTSD 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.
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 offer friendship. PTSD service dogs alleviate anxiety and depression, raise levels of serotonin, and decrease blood pressure.
PTSD service dogs 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. Service dogs 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. Service dogs 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 from unhealthy behaviors by nudging, providing their paw, or leaning. Other interruption tactics include licking a person’s face or hands, lying across a person’s chest, nuzzling, or initiating distracting play.
PTSD service dogs 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. PTSD service dogs 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 around them to create personal space. PTSD service dogs are educated to move in a way that creates pressure on certain body parts to alleviate stress.
PTSD 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. A service dog can learn to 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 emergency situations, a service dog can be trained to get help by setting off an emergency button or alert system when an individual is in trouble. A service dog can also be trained to bring medication by command or when alerted through a timer or alarm.
There are certain requirements to become a service dog. PTSD service dogs must be inherently cooperative, intuitive, and obedient. They must have a calm temperament, show low reactivity, and be perceptive in nature. Service dogs must start specialized training when they are a puppy and are commonly matched to specific owners to ensure success.
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 important that a person get a service dog only when they can provide care for it. It would be counterproductive for one to obtain a PTSD service dog when they are not ready, as it would only cause increased levels of stress and anxiety.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.