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Service Dogs for PTSD: What You Need to Know!

A black labrador service dog on a leash lays in green grass

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a condition that affects millions of people every day. According to theSidran Institute, up to 20% of people who have survived a traumatic incident have PTSD. PTSD is the psychological aftershock that can manifest in people who have survived a severely traumatic situation such as:

  • War or combat
  • Rape or other sexual assault
  • Prolonged physical and mental abuse
  • Surviving natural disasters such as a tsunami, tornado, dust storm, tidal wave, hurricane
  • A serious accident like car or plane crashes
  • Terrorist acts
  • Violent personal assaults like a carjacking, mugging, or a break-in  
  • Witnessing a traumatic incident involving a loved one, such as a beating or murder

PTSD affects a significant number of war veterans, though it used to be categorized as "shell shock," "soldier's heart," "war neurosis," and "combat fatigue." Those were the terms used following WWI, and it wasn't until 1980 that PTSD became a medical term, thanks to theAmerican Psychiatric Association. Unfortunately, for decades, PTSD was not recognized as a medical condition any many, not just veterans, went undiagnosed.  

Those who have PTSD can experience intense and disturbing thoughts related to traumatic experiences in the form of daytime flashbacks or night-terrors.

Additionally, particular smells, sights, or sounds like loud noises or accidental touches can trigger a PTSD episode.

A PTSD episode causes the person to relive the traumatic incident elicitingemotional distress or physical reaction. 

In addition to nightmares and flashbacks, those who suffer from PTSD often have other issues such as depression, substance abuse, dissociation or anti-social behaviors, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

What Are Service Dogs for PTSD?

There are a variety of service dogs trained to help humans in various ways. However, all service dog's primary purpose is the same, which is to give their human a better quality of life.

All service dogs are working animals and are protected under the ADA. They are allowed into areas restricted to pets, such as restaurants, pet restricted apartments and hotels, stores, and many public places. Service dogs are easily identified by the vests or harnesses they wear that display a series of patches, as well as an ID card.

Service Dogs for PTSD Provide Emotional and Psychological Support

Though it significantly depends on the person, PTSD service dogs provide extensive emotional and psychological assistance to help their handler during a typical day to day activities.

  • Provide mental or emotional grounding through tactile stimulation during a dissociative flashback
  • Accompany their human outside or to public areas
  • Wake their human if they are experiencing a nightmare
  • Bring medications to the handler in response to an alarm or trigger
  • Provide a defense perimeter between their handler and other individuals especially in a crowded area
  • Help provide neurochemical balance by stimulating endorphin production
  • Cue handler of the presence of others, to avoid startling and triggering a flashback
  • Help the individual focus if in the event of a sensory or emotional overload
  • Lead their person away to a safe, quiet area in the event of a panic attack
  • Assist with social and community integration 
  • Prompt handler to perform daily routines
  • Get help by finding another individual or hitting a “panic button” that will summon aid

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Goals for a PTSD Service Dog

Having a service dog for PTSD can change a person's life. Though the dog is trained to help their human with day-to-day life, a PTSD service dog's goal goes beyond the tasks they are trained to do.  

CertifiedPTSD service dogs aid their humans in increasing physical independence, emotional balance, and social self-sufficiency. PTSD service dogs can help their handler regain confidence and emotional strength, though they are not a replacement for medical or therapeutic treatment. Still, they can aid in that process.

Other goals service dogs for PTSD have helped achieve:

  • Reduce the need for some medications
  • Lessen depression
  • Decrease symptoms and feelings of anxiety
  • Improve the quality of sleep
  • Increase one's social activities such as working, volunteering, and connecting with others
  • Reduce thoughts of suicide

Health Benefits of Having a PTSD Service Dog

Though we are aware of the emotional and psychological benefits of having a trained service dog, did you know there were secondary health benefits? 

For example, service dogs are no different than pets in that they still require regular exercise.  By ensuring the service dog is getting adequate exercise, the handler will also get their recommended daily dose of physical activity.  And 30 minutes of exercise can help reduce the chances of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.  Plus, exercise increases the release of endorphins, boosting one’s mood.

Service dogs also help their humans stay physically healthy by reducing high blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.  There have even been reports that service dogs can help better manage pain, including reducing physical pain perception.

Other Benefits of Service Dogs for PTSD

Those who experience PTSD may not be able to trust their senses due to hallucinations and other sensory disorders that may plague them.  But, because of a dog's acute sense of sight, smell, and hearing, they are the perfect assistant for people who can no longer trust their senses.  Trusting in a service dog to alert to specific sounds, sights, or even smells helps keep those who have PTSD grounded.

Additionally, service dogs use their heightened sense to help prevent their humans from environmental triggers.  For example, suppose a helicopter's sound causes a veteran to experience flashbacks. In that case, the dog will hear it before their human, allowing the service dog to get them to a safer place that reduces or eliminates the trigger noise.

Service dogs also aid in stress alerting.  Humans do not always notice or acknowledge the beginning signs of stress.  However, a trained service dog can identify and alert their humans with increased stress levels.  By keeping stress at manageable levels, it can reduce episodes brought on by PTSD. 

Service Dogs for PTSD

There are numerous benefits of having a service dog to help those with PTSD. It is incredible how much of a positive impact dogs have on our lives day to day. But when it comes to service dogs helping their humans cope with PTSD, that is a life-changing experience.

Service dogs can increase one's social confidence, reduce stress and anxiety, and help their human resume their normal life activities.

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Meet The Author 

Jessica Mabie author of Dog Paw Pad Injuries for dogs: What you need to know

Jessica Mabie

Canine Specialist & Writer

Jessica Mabie is a Freelance Writer residing in the Twin Cities. She specializes in writing about pets, travel, and food. Jessica graduated with a BA in English Literature from the University of Minnesota, TC.

Jessica has always loved dogs, and, at the age of 14, she started volunteering at a neighborhood vet clinic. While at the U of M, she continued her work with dogs as an obedience trainer and vet tech. Although she no longer works with dogs professionally, she does use her experience as a volunteer with American Brittany Rescue as well as aiding in her writing.

When not working, Jessica and her family spend a lot of time camping and hiking from spring to fall. So, if you happen to see her out and about with her family don’t hesitate to say “Hi!”, (You’ll know it’s her since few are so daring as to have 4 Britts).

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