Introduction

Service Dogs Offer Hope and Healing for Those Coping With PTSD

For those coping with PTSD, service dogs can play an essential part in healing and managing symptoms through specialized tasks.

Service Dogs Offer Hope and Healing for Those Coping With PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder commonly referred to as PTSD can be a challenging and debilitating struggle. Thanks to service dogs, however, life can be better for those trying to manage PTSD symptoms. Here is important information for understanding PTSD and the vital role service dogs can perform, brought to you by Atlas Assistance Dogs.

About PTSD

PTSD is a longer-term condition, where the brain gets stuck in “fight or flight mode” as a result of trauma or multiple traumas. We often think of PTSD in veterans, but it also affects civilians of all ages. The person with PTSD can experience a wide range of symptoms including sudden mood swings, panic attacks, hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, difficulty in or withdrawal from social settings, as well as suicidal ideation. Furthermore, those with PTSD are at greater risk of developing other mental health disorders. Service dogs play an integral part in helping millions of Americans who have PTSD. From providing love and companionship to improving self-esteem and sociable behaviors, service dogs can help to relieve stress and panic, and provide their handlers with nurturing abilities. 

Decrease in Symptoms

People with PTSD who have service dogs enjoy reduced severity in their symptoms. Trained canine companions have helped people sleep better, have less anger issues, reduced anxiety, and reduce the risk of abusing alcohol or other substances. Those with service dogs potentially experience less chronic stress as well. According to Reboot Camp, veterans with service dogs see improvements in mental health ranging from better resilience to lower levels of depression. Some of those diagnosed with PTSD report increased levels of confidence and feel less isolation thanks to their service dogs. 

Improved Quality of Life

For those trying to rebuild their life after a traumatic event, service dogs can be indispensable. Psychology Today explains that the unconditional love and acceptance service dogs provide can help those with PTSD learn to trust again. Often those recovering from a traumatic event can suppress vulnerable emotions like love. A service dog, however, can help those suffering to learn how to access those emotions again. In turn, with the help of the right care, food, and engagement, those with PTSD can develop a nurturing bond with their dog. Furthermore, having a service dog means having to care for the dog’s basic needs which includes taking the dog out. For many, this can help break their isolation from the outside world.

Specialized Tasks

Many people are confused about the roles emotional support dogs and psychiatric service dogs play.  Emotional support dogs are actually companion animals without specialized training. Unlike emotional support dogs, psychiatric service dogs are trained specifically for tasks which mitigate PTSD symptoms (or other mental health symptoms) such as nightmares, dissociations, anxiety and hyper-vigilance.

Some of these tasks include waking their person up from night terrors and providing deep pressure therapy or a variety of other grounding tasks. Similarly, dogs can be trained to mitigate and interrupt panic attacks and self-harm behaviors.

Deep Pressure Therapy Video

In this video, you can see the dog jumping on the bed and laying fully on the person to provide pressure on her entire body. This is a common task that helps people decrease their heightened state of anxiety or panic.

One common symptom of PTSD is hyper-vigilance, where the person may be hyper aware and alert of their surroundings and on the look-out for danger. Service dogs can be trained to alert their handler by pawing or nudging them when someone is approaching them from behind; a cue we call pay attention. This helps the person avoid a startle or fear response as they have time to process the situation. 

In social situations or public spaces where the person may need space, the dog can provide a block cue and will act as a physical barrier between their handler and other people by either standing behind or in front of the person.

Block Training VIdeo

Here, you can see one of our Atlas Team Facilitators training their dog to perform a block task. In this video you will hear them call the cue “working”.

Service Dogs Don't Replace Treatment

While service dogs can perform phenomenal tasks for people with PTSD and other psychiatric disorders, it is important to remember that they are not substitutes for other treatments such as therapy or medication. We always recommend that a service dog compliments someone’s ongoing treatment, not replace it.

Service Dog Etiquette

Service dogs are protected by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) due to the important work they do for their handlers. Because of that protection, service dogs are allowed to go anywhere their handlers go (with a few exceptions), even when in training in. (Each US state has its own laws in regards to in-training service dogs and access, not all allow service dogs in training to have the same public access rights as fully trained service dogs). 

Service dogs need to be able to focus on their handlers, as well as take in and evaluate their surroundings. It’s important to understand that service dogs are still dogs. Trying to pet, talk with or otherwise interact with a service dog while they are working can be distracting and hinder the dog from doing their job. If you feel it is truly important to approach the dog and their handler, one recommendation is to speak directly to the handler while not interacting with the dog and ask for permission, while respecting their right to decline greetings. Please keep your own dog away from working dogs, and don’t offer snacks to a service dog on duty. 

How to (not) interact with a service dog

Best Friend, Healing and Hope

Most people recognize the benefits of being loved by a dog, but service dogs can provide a special kind of companionship to those coping with PTSD. These canines perform vital tasks. From alleviating symptoms to curtailing trouble before it gets out of hand. Thanks to their service dogs’ hard work, those coping with PTSD can enjoy an improved quality of life and thrive with their dog by their side. 

About Atlas Assistance Dogs

Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one. 

We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers. For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit www.atlasdog.org or contact info@atlasdog.org

Mental Health Resources

If you or someone you know is seeking support for their PTSD or with their mental health, here are some additional resources that may be helpful:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/

https://growingveterans.org/

https://www.nami.org/Home

Author: Jessica Brody

Jessica is a dog lover and is passionate about sharing pet photos and stories with others. She created Our Best Friends to be a venue for pet lovers to share their pet pics, stories and adventures. Jessica believes that pets are family and enjoys her bonding moments with her furry pals. 

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