Dogs may be the key to treating a surprisingly common disorder
As many as 1 in 5 of the roughly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 are experiencing .
that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a , is a and can be hard to treat. Our lab is studying whether service dogs can help these military veterans, who may also have — and run an elevated — in addition to having PTSD.
get , they tend to and miss work less frequently.
How service dogs how PTSD complement other forms of treatment
The , such as talk therapy and medication, do work for many veterans. But these approaches do not alleviate the symptoms for all veterans, so a growing number of them are seeking additional help from .
The nation’s estimated aid people experiencing a wide array of conditions that include visual or hearing impairments, psychological challenges, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.
For our PTSD research, we partner with and , two of many nonprofits that train service dogs to work with veterans with PTSD.
There is no single breed that can help people this way. These dogs can be anything from purebred Labrador retrievers to shelter mixes.
Unlike , service dogs must be trained to do specific tasks — in this case, helping alleviate PTSD symptoms. In keeping with the , service dogs are allowed in public places where other dogs are not.
How service dogs reduce anxiety
Service dogs can . The most include helping veterans remain calm and interrupting their anxiety. The veterans said they are asking their dogs to calm or comfort them from anxiety five times per day and that their dogs independently interrupted their anxiety three times per day on average.
For example, a dog may “cover” a veteran at a supermarket, allowing its owner to calmly turn to take something off the shelf because veterans with PTSD can get startled if they don’t know if someone is approaching and benefit if their dogs signal that this is happening.
If a veteran starts to have a panic attack, a service dog can nudge its owner to “alert” and interrupt the anxiety. At that point, the veteran can focus on petting the dog to re-center on the present — ideally preventing or minimizing the panic attack.
Aside from the tasks that their dogs are trained to do, veterans also shared that the love and companionship they get from simply being with their dogs is helping make their PTSD easier to manage.
Once veterans got service dogs, they described themselves in surveys as more satisfied with their lives, said they felt a greater sense of well-being, and deemed themselves as having better relationships with friends and loved ones.
We have also , commonly called the “,” in veterans with service dogs. We found they had patterns closer to adults without PTSD.
Challenges and extra responsibilities
Not all veterans are willing or able to benefit from having their own service dogs.
Being accompanied by dogs in public can draw attention to the veterans. Some veterans appreciate this attention and the way it encourages them to get out of their shells, while others dread having to avoid well-meaning, dog-loving strangers. We’ve found that veterans do not expect this challenge, but .
Service dogs can also make , since bringing a dog along can require more planning and effort, especially because many people don’t understand the legal rights of people with service dogs and may ask inappropriate questions or create barriers that they aren’t legally allowed to do. Many experts believe educating the public about service dogs could alleviate these challenges.
What’s more, feeding, walking, grooming, and otherwise taking care of a dog also entails additional responsibilities, including making sure they see a veterinarian from time to time.
There can also be a new sense of stigma that goes along with making a disability that might otherwise be hidden readily apparent. Someone who has PTSD might not stick out until they get a service dog that is always present.
Most veterans say it’s worth it because the benefits tend to outweigh the challenges, especially when appropriate expectations are set. Clinicians can play a role in helping veterans realize in advance what caring for the animal entails, to make the intervention positive for both the veterans and the dogs.
We are now completing the first comparing what happens when these veterans get the usual PTSD interventions with what happens when they get that same treatment in addition to a trained service dog.
As our research proceeds, we are trying to see how the effects of a service dog last over time, how the service dogs affect veterans’ families, and how we can support the partnership between veterans and their service dogs.
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