The US Department of Veteran Affairs says Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) “is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.” PTSD is characterized by symptoms grouped into four main categories: intrusion or re-experiencing, avoidance, alteration in mood and cognition, and hyperarousal.
Using Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) is one way to help people suffering from PTSD. Psychiatric service animals are dogs specifically trained to help people with mental health disabilities like schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A PTSD service dog is a type of psychiatric service dog trained to do work and complete tasks to help mitigate the symptoms of PTSD.
In this post, we will identify six ways that a service animal can help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the tasks they perform to do so.
1. Reduce Suicidal Thoughts
Service dogs help reduce the symptoms of depression, which helps reduce suicidal thoughts and prevent suicide. Service animals can give a person a reason to rise out of bed, get some exercise, and take on the day. Having a dog as a companion can be therapeutic and help with feelings of loneliness and isolation. They also help reduce anxiety and other PTSD symptoms while improving a handler’s coping mechanisms. Overall, a service animal can help a handler gain confidence and freedom.
2. Mitigate Anxiety & Disrupt Anxiety Behaviors
Psychiatric service dogs are trained to recognize symptoms of anxiety and perform tasks to disrupt anxiety behaviors. This is an important way in which service dogs can help a handler with PTSD reduce anxiety.
There are several ways in which a service animal can mitigate anxiety. One task includes nudging, pawing, or licking the handler until they redirect their focus on the dog instead of on their anxiety.
A service dog can also help reduce anxiety whenever a handler is in public. A service dog is trained to provide a “cushion” between the handler and other people, which helps reduce anxiety and makes them feel safe while in public.
3. Interrupt Night Terrors
Night terrors are one form of the intrusion symptom. A service dog recognizes the signs of a handler experiencing a night terror and interrupts it. When the dog recognizes these cues, they wake the handler by nudging, licking, or lying on the chest. They can even turn on the lights to wake the handler and ensure they feel safe.
4. Perform Room Searches and Safety Checks
Hypervigilance is a key symptom of PTSD and is characterized by an extreme sensitivity to one’s surroundings and a sense that a presumed danger is lurking around the corner. To help mitigate this symptom, service dogs perform room searches or safety checks. This is where the dog goes into each room and then alerts the handler that the house is safe.
5. Help With Dissociation
Dissociation is a symptom of PTSD and can display itself in several ways, including flashbacks, a disconnection of the self, having a disconnection with time or feeling detached from reality.
When a handler is in a dissociative state, a service animal helps guide a handler to a safe place, an exit, back home or even to find a specific person.
Service animals can even help “ground” the handler to bring them back to reality. While in this state, a service dog can also use tactile stimulation or deep pressure therapy to help their handler.
6. Retrieve Medication and Other Alert Tasks
Service dogs are trained to remind handlers when it is time to take their medication and retrieve medications for them.
Some other alert tasks that service dogs perform are alerting a handler to an alarm, alert that someone is at the door, and remind them of routine tasks such as eating and sleeping.
A service dog is a nonjudgmental companion for someone with PTSD. Not only can these extraordinary dogs help mitigate the symptoms associated with PTSD, but they can also make it possible for sufferers to live more independently, be more self-sufficient, and improve their quality of life.
This post covers just a few ways a service dog can help people with PTSD. But there are many more tasks service dogs can perform which depend on each handler and their unique situation.
Are you, or someone you know, a veteran or first-responder who suffers from PTSD? Interested in applying for a service dog? Please visit New Life K9’s application page here.
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New Life K9s places service dogs with veterans and first responders with PTSD at no cost to the veterans and first responders.
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? American Psychiatric Association. Accessed December 19, 2020
US Department of Veterans Affairs. VA.gov. Accessed December 20, 2020
“The Four Types of Symptoms of PTSD” RWJBarnabas Health. Accessed December 20, 2020
Maynard, Erin "Service Dogs. The ADA, and PTSD" Very Well Mind. Updated on September 17, 2020. Accessed December 20, 2020
“The Most Important Task for a PTSD Service Dog for Veterans is Disrupting Anxiety” Purdue University. Science Daily. July 22, 2020. Accessed December 20, 2020
Kerri E. Rodriguez, Megan R. LaFollette, Karin Hediger, Niwako Ogata, Marguerite E. O’Haire. “Defining the PTSD Service Dog Intervention: Perceived Importance, Usage, and Symptom Specificity of Psychiatric Service Dogs for Military Veterans” Frontiers in Psychology, 2020; 11
Tull, Matthew PHD “What Is Dissociation?” VerywellMind. July 19, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020
“Psychiatric Service Dogs” National Service Animal Registry. Accessed December 21, 2020
“Comprehensive List of Service Dog Tasks” National Service Animal Registry. Accessed December 22, 2020