PTSD Therapy Dogs: Service dogs for veterans

Sparty Diabetic Service Dog

What is PTSD?
PTSD stands for ‘post traumatic stress disorder’. It is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a person goes through a traumatic experience, such as serving in the armed forces. Sufferers often feel like their life or the lives of those around them are in danger and need protecting. They can have recurring nightmares that make it difficult to sleep, have a loss of interest in life, experience numb or distant feelings, have panic attacks in public places, be frequently irritable and have a lack of engagement with friends and family. Veterans with PTSD can also suffer from other mental disorders such as depression.

A 2012 study found that 13.9% of their sample of US army veterans screened positive for PTSD. A study by RAND states that the total percentage is more likely to be above 20%. Although cognitive behavioural therapy can help to reduce symptoms, there is no definite “cure” to PTSD. However, PTSD therapy dogs have been shown to help reduce the symptoms in veterans to help make their lives more enjoyable.

Visit the National Center for PTSD website for more information on post traumatic stress disorder.

What is a PTSD Therapy Dog?
PTSD therapy dogs have been trained specifically to help with the needs of someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. The exact requirements of each dog will vary based on the needs of the veteran that they are placed with, but common tasks include assisting in medical emergencies, helping their owner to cope with emotional overload, providing a loving and calm companion and helping the person to feel more secure in their home environment and when out in public.

As PTSD dogs are classed as service dogs (similar to guide dogs), they are allowed in public places such as stores and restaurants.

What training do PTSD therapy dogs go through?
The most important task for training a PTSD service dog is to select a suitable dog to begin with. As one of their most important tasks will be to provide a feeling of security, they are usually large breeds. The dog must remain calm in every situation; therefore Labradors and Golden Retrievers are a common choice due to their laid-back natures, desire to please and good susceptibility to training.

The dogs may be trained to perform tasks such as waking their owner up when it senses they are having a nightmare, creating a “personal space” around the person in public places and retrieving medications. Their ultimate goal is to teach the veteran that the world around them is safe and that they do not need to be afraid or anxious.

Training usually begins as early as possible, when the puppy is old enough to leave its mother and be homed with a dedicated service dog trainer. Most dogs are not placed with a veteran until they are at least two years old. This is partly because of the length of time it takes to train a dog to a suitable standard and partly because dogs under that age are prone to erratic behavior due to their very high energy whilst they are growing.


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