Service Dogs and PTSD

Long considered a non-traditional treatment for PTSD, service dogs are finding their place among the more commonly accepted treatments.

Google health defines Post-traumatic stress disorder as a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death.

Symptoms of PTSD include
(to name a few):

  • Repeated "reliving" of the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity
  • Avoidance. Emotional "numbing," or feeling as though you don't care about anything
  • Difficulty concentrating, Exaggerated response to things that startle you
  • Anxiety, hallucinations, nightmares, paranoia
  • You also might feel a sense of guilt about the event (including "survivor guilt"), and the symptoms typical of anxiety, stress, and tension.

Beyond the physical injuries that we all know dogs assist their owners to overcome, dogs can be trained to greatly mitigate all kinds of psychiatric disorders. says that according to the Army Surgeon General's special assistant for mental health, Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, M.D., the Army is using dogs "much more" to help soldiers recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The observation came at a 2010 NAMI Convention symposium on "Veterans and Military Mental Health," focusing on the needs of returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other veterans.

Until recently there has been no government assistance that would provide a trained service or guide dog for returning veterans diagnosed with a physical or psychiatric injury. Even with recent changes to that policy (thanks in great part to Vets Helping Heroes founder Irwin Stovroff), private donations are very much needed to make sure that every veteran in need of a service or guide dog, receives one.

The dogs are trained to perform such tasks as to jolt a soldier from a flashback, dial 911 on a phone and even sense a panic attack before it starts. And, perhaps most important, the veterans' sense of responsibility, optimism and self-awareness is renewed by caring for the dogs.

Like all service dogs, a psychiatric service dog is individually trained to do work or perform tasks that mitigate their handler's disability. Training may include providing environmental assessment (in such cases as paranoia or hallucinations), signaling behaviors (such as interrupting repetitive or injurious behaviors), reminding the handler to take medication, retrieving objects, guiding the handler from stressful situations, or acting as a brace if the handler becomes dizzy.

Symptom Dogs Trained Reaction
Intrusive imagery
Tactile Stimulation
Hallucinations Hallucination Discernment
Feelings of isolation Cuddle and Kiss
Hyper vigilance Alert to presence of other people
Fear / Startle response Environmental Assessment
Fear / Anxiety Turn on lights and safety check a room
Avoidance behaviors
Staying with and focusing on handler
Nightmares Interrupt by Waking-up handler
Turn on lights for calming & reorienting
Turn off lights for resuming sleep
Feelings of being threatened Create safe personal space

Table courtesy:


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