For some of our veterans, coming home and entering life as a civilian is the start of another battle. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an everyday reality among many of the men and women who have served. Whether they’ve experienced or witnessed combat or other traumatic events, they may be left with mental scars that can trigger overwhelming feelings of fear, avoidance, anxiety, withdrawal, and panic that can severely impact their ability to navigate daily life. On the bright side, there is a growing body of evidence showing the benefits of service dogs in supporting veterans with PTSD. Service dogs can aid our veterans by providing unwavering companionship and performing specific duties for the veteran.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental condition that affects people who have experienced or seen catastrophic events, a string of events, or protracted traumas. Intense, bothersome thoughts and sensations that transport people with PTSD back to their experience are common. Veterans that have PTSD could suffer the following symptoms:
- Flashbacks: For people with PTSD, being brought back to the source of their trauma can result in reliving the event. This can cause intense panic attacks where the veteran has little control over their disposition or actions.
- Anxiety: People with PTSD often deal with overwhelming anxiety, even when they aren’t experiencing a panic attack. This can leave them feeling hopeless about situations they may find themselves in.
- Fear: PTSD can lead to those suffering from it experiencing irrational fear about people, places, and things. Sometimes this manifests as needing to avoid factors that they believe could trigger an episode.
- Difficulty interacting with others: PTSD can damage veterans’ ability to interact with others. This could be because of irritability or outbursts, constantly being on guard, being easily startled, or general withdrawal from social interactions.
It should be apparent that PTSD can severely impact a veteran’s quality of life. Many people often think of PTSD as something that only occurs in episodes. Still, some symptoms, such as anxiety or an inability to socialize, are pervasive in a veteran's life. Veterans may avoid human contact altogether to avoid exposure to something that could trigger an episode. This is why service dogs have become so important in improving the ability of veterans to live more fulfilling lives.
What are Service Dogs?
Service dogs are a type of working dog that is specially trained to attend to the needs of their handlers. They stand in stark contrast to emotional support animals in that emotional support animals can be any animal that provides companionship for their owner.
While service dogs also fill that role, they perform many more roles and duties and are uniquely tailored to their handlers. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” They are ar more than pets. They often require a specific medical need and are then trained to perform duties and tasks to compensate for their handler’s difficulty or inability to perform these tasks. For veterans with PTSD, service dogs are shown to:
- Reduce stress
- Reduce anxiety
- Mitigate depression
- Provide emotional support
- Restore confidence
- Reduce shame
- Ease social reintegration
While emotional support animals can provide some of these same benefits, they are not specifically trained to adhere to and attend to the needs of their handler. For example, service dogs trained to handle PTSD can identify when their handler may be on the verge of a panic attack. They can then rush to their aid and provide a much-needed grounding point to bring them out of their flashback and back into reality. Because of their specialized role, service dogs undergo rigorous training. Service dogs go through a complex series of:
- Obedience training
- Service training
- Socialization training
These training programs are extensive and can take up to 600 hours of training. Unfortunately, this means they can be costly, costing anywhere from $20-30k. Fortunately, many non-profit organizations realize how the unique bond between veterans and their service dogs can significantly improve their lives. They are willing to provide service dogs for veterans, often at no cost. However, because service dogs are so effective at improving the lives of veterans, the downside is these organizations often have long waitlists. More importantly, the VA often provides coverage for service dogs, should the VA decide that a service dog is an appropriate treatment for the veteran. Because service dogs are so impactful, they are afforded many protections under the ADA.
- Businesses, non-profit organizations, and state and local governments are generally required to allow service dogs to accompany veterans in any area open to the public, including but not limited to:
- Grocery stores
- Office buildings
- Retail stores
- Airplanes (free of pet charges)
- Service animals also have housing protections and can live with their owners free of charge, pet rent, or pet deposits, even if the property prohibits pets or dogs of any size or breed.
The Ways the Bonds with Service Dogs Help Our Veterans
Trained therapy dogs have been proven to have long-lasting benefits for veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from their service. Even veterans who do not have PTSD can benefit from the companionship of service dogs. Here are some ways that bonds with service dogs can benefit veterans.
Emotional Healing and Wellness
Therapy dogs can provide emotional benefits for veterans. Having a dog can decrease symptoms of anxiety, increase happiness and positive emotions and decrease emotional numbness. There are a lot of joys involved with pet ownership, and it also is a great way for veterans to interact with others. Just think of a happy dog there to greet you when you get home! A worthy companion who will be loyal in good times and bad ones.
Many veterans who have seen combat report high degrees of isolation and feeling alone when they return home. They may also feel misunderstood because few can grasp what they’ve experienced. Having a dog encourages social activity and reintegration into society. Chatting with other dog owners can be a great source of social activity and normalcy for a once-isolated veteran.
Unconditional Love and Acceptance
Many veterans report that a bond with a dog is unlike anything else–very different from what they could experience with another human, especially early on after returning home. For instance, not having to explain themselves and why they do certain things can often be a comfort to veterans. Dogs also tend to have good instincts to provide comfort and companionship when needed.
Improved Happiness and Overall Well-Being
There has been a demonstrated link between owning a pet and the release of oxytocin in the brain. When you interact with a dog, this neurochemical is released in your brain, causing feelings of peace, joy, happiness, and contentment. Having more oxytocin released regularly can improve wellness and mood, which can have powerful impacts on veterans' lives.
Exercise and Health
Fitness isn’t usually a problem for most veterans, but sometimes it can be a challenge, combined with mental health concerns or other issues, to make it a daily routine. Dogs require exercise and activity every day. Getting out of the house and walking with them is helpful for veterans suffering from isolation because it offers the benefit of exercise and a chance to get out of the house and be out in the community.
As you can see, service dogs can be a significantly enriching factor in a veteran’s life. Their ability to attend to the unique needs of each veteran means that they not only provide unconditional support and love but also act as a guardian for the veteran when needed and help our veterans reintegrate into the civilian world without the baggage that may come from their time served.