According to the American Psychiatric Association, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury.1
Soldiers in combat often witness traumatic and graphic things. Sometimes, they can be given missions or tasks that are life-threatening or horrifying. Because war is a stressful situation, it causes significant emotional responses to traumatic experiences.
Veterans can develop post-traumatic stress disorder over time due to factors such as their position in the war, politics that are surrounding the way, the location of the battles, and the types of enemies they face.3
Sadly, the next leading cause of PTSD in veterans is military sexual trauma. The VA found that among people that use their health care, 23% of women reported being sexually assaulted while in the military, 55% of women experienced sexual harassment, and 38% of men experienced sexual harassment. This trauma can also lead to lifelong PTSD.3
There are several PTSD symptoms, but they vary depending on the person. Sometimes, they can be intense, while other times they seem less severe. Some of the symptoms are as follows:
Although the ADA does not require that service dogs be professionally trained, it would be best to use professional training programs. A service dog should be calm and alert as well as have a heart to please and a strong ability to learn/retain commands. Service dogs should also be quick to adapt to different environments and reliable to perform tasks repetitively.
The first steps are basic house training and foundational skills. The next goal is to make sure a dog is socialized enough where they will maintain their task or objective even when in unfamiliar environments. Service dogs have to be on duty at all times. On top of this, these dogs must be trained to perform their specific task to assist with the disability.
PTSD service dogs aid in balancing out the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
One side effect of PTSD is a sense of being unsafe or being startled easily. A support dog can relieve this stress through positional commands. Due to the reliability of service dogs, veterans can grow to trust them knowing they will always be there. Being able to do things on command is extremely important, and it is one of the biggest benefits of having a service dog.6
In addition, a dog that takes orders well and listens can be very comfortable for a service member or veteran because they are used to giving or taking orders in the military. Knowing they can rely on their PTSD service dog will help lower anxiety in unfamiliar situations.
One of the most difficult symptoms of PTSD to deal with is anxiety. When a person goes through a traumatic experience, flashbacks and recurring memories can make someone always feel on edge, especially in unfamiliar situations. While medication is sometimes used to treat anxiety, a service dog could also be helpful. A service dog is trained to sense when their owner is anxious and they will do their task, such as licking or pawing at the owner, to reduce anxiety.6
PTSD service dogs tend to travel behind their owners to protect them from anything that might happen behind them. This training can give the service member a sense of comfort and safety, which will also reduce their anxiety.
Studies have shown that “positive interactions between humans and dogs…have been proven to increase levels of oxytocin in both humans and dogs.”7 Interactions with dogs can decrease one’s negative emotions, increase their positive emotions, and create perceived welfare inside the individual.
According to a study published in 2018, over 120 articles were written about the benefits of service dogs for veterans with PTSD. There have been 6 case studies, 6 empirical studies, 2 narrative literature reviews, and a systematic literature review.7 There is not a lot of empirical evidence that supports the use of PTSD service dogs for treating PTSD, but there is a strong correlation between having a PTSD service dog and improvements in quality of life for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.7
However, it is difficult to tell how much is due to normal human-to-animal interactions or how much is due to the training of the service dog. Overall, veterans tend to say that having a PTSD support dog has improved their life significantly and helped them manage their symptoms. There is a significant amount of anecdotal and indirect evidence that shows that PTSD service dogs can benefit veterans or service members struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.7
If a veteran is struggling with PTSD, they can request a service dog through the VA. They will do a review, and the veteran will most likely have to be evaluated by a therapist or clinician. The criteria to receive a service dog include the ability to care for the service dog, goals meant to be accomplished by using the service dog, and goals to accomplish through other forms of technology or therapy.8
Once the request goes through, the VA will refer the veteran to an ADI accredited agency. The VA will cover all costs to train and take care of the service dog.
Many times, veterans struggling with PTSD will go to a form of psychotherapy. Some different kinds include cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, and EMDR.9 These therapies help people develop stress management techniques to cope with difficult situations. The goal is to gain control of the fear that comes about after a traumatic event.