Service dogs for PTSD are often the difference between life and death for people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not to be confused with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS), affects around 3.5% of the adult U.S. population, according to Psychiatry.org. What’s more, 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.
This disorder can be hard to deal with, and some of its most common symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. The flashbacks will usually take the person back to a traumatic event that happened to them, forcing them to relive it for months or even years afterward.
The good news is that people with PTSD don’t have to do it alone. Service dogs are amazing companions for people suffering with mental illness, and more specifically, service dogs for PTSD are trained to help alleviate PTSD symptoms and provide comfort and healing to those who live with it every day.
The Nature of Dogs
Dogs are called man’s best friend for a reason. In fact, many of them perform services to help us two-legged creatures. Dogs are a great aid to any police force, as they can search for bombs, drugs, and perps — and know how to take them down!
In the same vein, many dogs also serve in the military. And while police and military dogs make great partners to their human service members, what’s truly fascinating is how they can continue to help them once they’ve returned from service.
While service dogs are specially trained to assist their handlers, dogs in general possess some unique traits that make them fit for the task. These include:
- Protectiveness. Dogs are driven to protect their pack, and to them, that’s you. They will do anything to ensure your safety, even if that means putting themselves in harm’s way. This inherent selflessness and unconditional love is just one reason that humans are naturally drawn to dogs.
- Lack of judgement. As humans, and this is especially true for those with PTSD, we tend to build walls around ourselves to protect us from the hard outer world. But we can sense that we don’t need these walls up around our dogs, who will never turn a critical eye on us and will always accept us just as we are.
Maybe this is why 67% of American households own a dog. Or maybe we just really can’t resist their puppy-dog eyes.
Service Dogs for PTSD Requirements
Not just any dog can become a service dog for PTSD. In fact, service dogs for PTSD have to meet some criteria right off the bat to be eligible for training.
While any dog breed can become a service dog, you have to consider what kind of services this dog needs to perform. For example, if the handler is physically disabled, they may require a larger breed like a German shepherd or husky to help them get around. A sizable dog may also make the handler feel better if they struggle to feel safe in public areas.
In general, service dogs must:
- Be able to socialize normally with people and other dogs. This rules out dogs with aggressive behavior, or dogs who are overly shy and don’t like crowds. Sometimes these traits can be trained out, but not always.
- Be intuitive. Have you ever had a dog comfort you when you’re sad? These are dogs who can sense their owner’s needs and emotions, and act accordingly. This is an important trait in service dogs.
- Be calm. An overly excitable dog won’t be able to perform their duties in a crowded setting. However, this is common in puppies and can almost always be trained out as they get older.
While almost any dog (or companion animal) can be classified as a “therapy animal,” service dogs are specifically trained to help with an ADA-qualified emotional or physical disability, such as PTSD. This means they need to be perfectly well-behaved in public — always ready to heed a command or help their handler at a moment’s notice
How Do Service Dogs Help People with PTSD?
So, what kinds of things do service dogs do to help people with PTSD?
First, these dogs are specifically trained to help their handler. That means they’re trained according to what their handler needs most, which ranges from person to person. As such, service dogs for PTSD perform a variety of different tasks depending on what helps their handler.
For example, let’s say a handler suffers from chronic panic attacks and has a hard time going out in public. Their service dog will be trained to not only be alert to their handler’s emotions, but be alert to their surroundings in order to identify anything that may trigger a panic attack. Knowing that their dog is on the lookout will make a handler feel better, and if they do sense a panic attack coming on, a dog will know how to best comfort their handler — usually by leading them to a safe and quiet location or curling around them protectively.
Similarly, service dogs for PTSD are trained to assist their handler at all hours of the day, meaning they’re never off-the-clock. People who suffer from nightmares may be helped by their service dog, who will wake them when they sense a nightmare coming on, or whose comforting presence helps the person sleep through the night.
Service dogs can also help with more physical activities, such as reminding their handler to take their medication and even bringing their prescription bottles to them. They can also assist physically disabled people get around more easily, and help their handlers navigate a world where other people don’t necessarily understand the concept of personal space.
Finally, service dogs hold their handlers accountable. Many people suffering from PTSD decide to keep living because they can’t bring themselves to abandon their dog. These animals not only inspire a will to live, but they ensure that their owner remains responsible enough to be able to care for them.
When someone has little regard for their own needs or safety, they will still find it in themselves to get up and take their dog for a walk.
How To Get a Service Dog
While anyone can get a dog, and there’s no legal need to certify your service dog in the U.S., training a pup into a full-fledged service dog is no easy feat. In almost all cases you will need professional assistance — especially if you need a dog who can perform more specialized tasks.
One way to get a service dog is to buy or adopt a dog and then pay someone to train them. Bob Smith in Lakewood, Washington, for example, is a Vietnam Veteran who trains dogs. He also includes the owners in the training to make sure they form the proper bond with their dog and learn how to work with them.
However, there are also organizations who provide trained service dogs to people in need. Many of these organizations exist specifically to help military Veterans who are struggling with PTSD.
If you’re in need of a service dog, check out any one these organizations:
PTSD can feel like a crippling and even life-ending diagnosis. And while medication and therapy can help, sometimes the simple companionship between a person and their dog is the best treatment there is.