PTSD Service Dogs

Roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide, according to new data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2014, the latest year available, more than 7,400 veterans took their own lives, accounting for 18 percent of all suicides in America. Veterans make up less than 9 percent of the U.S. population.

The problem is particularly worrisome among female veterans, who saw their suicide rates rise more than 85 percent over that time, compared to about 40 percent for civilian women.

—Military Times, July 7, 2016

TeakWhen young men and women join our military, they are optimistic, full of ideals and want to be of service. Some of them come home with physical injuries and some come home with invisible or moral injuries. Doctors know how to repair many parts of a broken body, but deep personal trauma is harder to address. Many veterans resort to unproductive strategies to cope with their pain by becoming isolated, abusing substances or even committing suicide. They struggle to reintegrate into civilian society and to reconnect with family and friends. Sleeping through the night, keeping a job, or deriving pleasure from activities they once enjoyed are typical challenges.

Service Dogs can help these vulnerable people by being a constant, non-judgmental presence. The dog is trained to interrupt common anxiety symptoms such as a nervous leg bounce, nightmares or body language that indicates social withdrawal. These gentle interventions can keep a person from spiraling into a dark place. Because of these interventions, people can go places they have been afraid or reluctant to go, and their isolation is decreased. Recipients of these dogs are taught the effective use of praise and reward, which can translate to giving support to family members and friends. Many vets and active duty military also have a physical disability and our dogs are trained to help with physical assistance tasks when needed.

Dogs who are selected for this work must be calm and steady in public no matter what is going on in the environment. They should be responsive to their person and emotionally connected. These are dogs who thrive on closeness and voluntarily check in versus dogs that are more independent and have their own agenda.

Assistance Dogs International logoMany service dog organizations have sprung up to help this deserving population, but only recently has the Veterans Administration offered support to individual service men and women to help them with expenses related to their dog. While the VA does not pay for dogs and provides no compensation for us, the VA will help veterans with veterinary care, specialized equipment, and travel expenses. It is important to note that the VA will only help veterans who work with an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) accredited organization. As one of only two ADI accredited service dog organizations in Virginia, we are happy to meet the challenge of helping our veterans.

After several years of study, ADI has issued a set of standards for training dogs for PTSD for veterans and active duty military. Of utmost importance is that we will not train dogs with tasks that support the idea that the world is a dangerous place. We will not train behaviors that encourage guarding, protecting, or searching for an enemy or threat. Instead, dogs will teach a person about trust, praise, and appropriate social interaction.