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PTSD Service Dogs
For some, the traditional treatments for PTSD, including talking therapy and the plethora of medication that is usually prescribed, does not prove effective for treating the disorder. Now, an increasing number of people are gaining the support of specially trained PTSD service dogs. In fact, the charity K9 for warriors, who provide trained service dogs to army veterans, note that an extraordinary 92% of their clients have reduced or eliminated their medication entirely due to the benefits of their service dog. So what do PTSD service dogs do and how are they trained? This article will provide these details and practical information about being paired with a PTSD Service Dog.
Why a PTSD Service Dog and not just a pet dog?
There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that owning a pet dog is also a great help to people with a wide range of mental health issues. The innate loving and caring nature of dogs offer a great deal of support to people through times of distress. Key differences between PTSD service dogs and pet dogs is the training that PTSD dogs are given to respond to their owner’s times of distress. Under the ADA (American Disabilities Act), service dogs are also granted special permissions to accompany their owner in restaurants, cafes and other establishments that ban pet dogs.
What are Service dogs trained in?
Service dogs can be trained to provide an extraordinary range of medical responses to support their handler. This includes:
- Sensing changes in cortisol levels during a stressful event
- Stop other people crowding around their handler and providing them with adequate space
- Calming their handler during a panic attack by touch
- Turning on lights and gently waking up their handler if they are experiencing a nightmare
- Recognizing and retrieving objects (such as medication) for the handler and reminding them to take it
- Guiding their handler home if they are suffering from a dissociative episode
It’s important to note that not all dogs are able to be trained service dogs. Training providers ensure that the dogs have the right calm temperament to work with PTSD sufferers as well as people with a wide range of other needs.
Particular breeds of dog are well suited to being service dogs. These include Poodles, Labradors, King Charles Spaniels, German Shepherds, and Border Collies.
What are the benefits of having a service dog?
As well as the practical benefits of having a dog trained in the above points, studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that service dog handlers report an increase in sleep. This may be as a result of knowing that the dog is keeping watch, therefore reducing anxiety. Increased sleep leads to increased energy levels. As a consequence, handlers report feeling more confident about completing daily tasks and fostering a greater sense of self-sufficiency and independence. Reduced anxiety levels also minimizes the likelihood of flashback episodes. In fact, service dogs have been shown to reduce handler’s cortisol levels, which supports the handler’s confidence in dealing with stressful situations.
Service dogs are also believed to raise handlers’ levels of oxytocin, a hormone which is strongly linked to feelings of empathy and trust. The implication is that increased levels of oxytocin can support the handler to reconnect with people and the world from their current withdrawn state.
Service dogs generally tend to have an extensive pre-service training programme but are also given a training period with their new handler so that both handler and service dog can adjust to each other’s personality. The mutual training period itself has a great number of benefits for those suffering from PTSD. The communication process encourages the handlers to be assertive and build confidence as well as opportunities to give out praise.
Although much of the evidence is anecdotal and studies in this area have taken some time to come to fruition, several recent studies confirm the benefits of service dogs. A 2016 study by Purdue University showed that overall symptoms for PTSD were significantly lower for war veterans paired with service dogs. A literature review in 2018 of recent studies in the last decade also points to a great deal of evidence in support of service dogs.
Challenges of becoming a service dog handler
Despite the many positive benefits of being paired with a service dog, the process is not without its challenges. The commitment of having a service dog reside with you is something to consider. Waiting lists can be over 1 year in some cases and demand for service dogs often outstrips the supply. In practical terms, the financial support given for service dogs can vary. Army veterans in general, have access to a wider range of funding and often can be provided with a service dog and its training at little or no cost. This may be more challenging for others with a PTSD diagnosis. Some agencies may be able to support you in subsiding the cost of purchasing a service dog and this may vary from state to state. Assistance Dogs International and the International Association of Canine Professionals are two suggested agencies to contact in this case.
As mentioned earlier in the article, service dogs are able to accompany you to the grocery store, workplace, and school for example. A potential issue, however, is that many establishments and as such, their employees, may not be aware of laws in place for service dogs and this may be a challenge at times. For a clearer explanation of which public spaces your service dog is permitted to enter is available in this article.