It goes without saying serving in the military is a great honor and duty for any individual. But this achievement comes with many risks for our service members and veterans. Approximately 18.2 million veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and less than half will seek treatment. With such a large number of our former service members being diagnosed with PTSD it is important that we begin to recognize the disorder as well as treatment plans for veterans who begin to return to civilian life.
From Cognitive Processing Therapy to medication including antidepressants, it is important for other treatment plans to be recognized. Often overlooked, a service animal, in particular, service dogs, should become a more prominent and common treatment for PTSD in veterans. Research has shown service animals have the ability to lower depression and anxiety while providing psycho-emotional grounding.
They also have the ability to lead an individual safely to a building exit when experiencing a panic or anxiety attack or distract a person from an event or specific maladaptive behavior or awake someone during a night terror or nightmare, all very common PTSD side effects in our veterans.
Overall, therapeutic animals have shown positive outcomes in treating PTSD symptoms in our United State Veterans. One of the most common and easily identified symptoms of PTSD is depression and anxiety. (Mayo Clinic 2018) Research and studies have shown having a companion animal can reduce the level of depression, anxiety and loneliness drastically while providing psycho-emotional grounding. A study completed by Maggie O’Hare, assistant professor of human-animal interactions (HAI) at Purdue University, found that a group of veterans with service dogs had significantly lower levels of PTSD symptoms than those without a service dog.
O’Hare says, “They also had lower levels of depression, lower anxiety and increased social participation, meaning a willingness to leave their house and go engage with society in different activities.” (O’Hare, Purdue University 2018, paragraph 4) These results have a huge importance and implication for understanding the specific areas of PTSD that having a service dog can improve. Executive Director, Steven Feldman, from Purdue University on the same study as O’Hare, hopes this study will prompt a renewed focus on the benefits that service dogs provide claiming that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has cited a lack of scientific research supporting service dogs for veterans with PTSD. (Steven Feldman, Purdue University 2018, paragraph 10)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be identified by many symptoms. While some are easier to identify than others, another common symptom many veterans suffer from is panic/anxiety attacks as well as night terrors or nightmares. (Mayo Clinic 2018) These symptoms can arise at any point during a veterans daily or nightly routine. Without support or treatment of any kind, a suffering patient may find it difficult to become grounded and be able to work themselves out of these attacks by themselves, especially in public places that become overwhelming and make them feel unsafe. In an article written by two professors, Myra F. Taylor and Ann Pooley, a study is done on how service dogs make veterans feel safe during the day and night by physical comfort. Myra Taylor gives a great visual of how exactly the service dogs are trained to support during these episodes.
“So much that their dog during daylight hours would ground them by providing the physical comfort of pressing their body against them, and/or pawing them. Then, at night time, when they were beset by flashbacks, their dogs would sense the onset of their night terrors, and would relieve their painful memories by nudging them awake and staying with them until the memories receded” (Myra Taylor, Nudging Them Back to Reality 2013, page 598). Once the veteran is able to create a special bond with their pet, the animal is then able to sense when they needed reassurance. The dog is able to provide physical comfort like cuddling up to them or just placing their paws on them during an attack. As well as the dogs ability to wake them up, comfort them and stay with them until their memories go away during a night terror, these dogs are able to provide a support and most importantly, a treatment that a veteran would not receive without a service animal.
My favorite connection and most impactful being a service member myself, is the author’s statement that the veterans credited the security that their dogs “back-watching” actions became sufficient enough over time to lessen their panic attack experiences to such an extent that they felt capable of going out in public without fear and eventually began to re-engage with other people (Myra Taylor, Nudging Them Back to Reality 2013, page 598). The same mantra carried throughout their military career with fellow service members was able to be a part of their day to day life. When a veteran begins to venture out into everyday life, attend events and decides they are ready for bigger crowds, having their service animal with them to scan for possible triggers in order to warn or support them ahead of time is a huge resource a veteran not paired with an animal, won’t have. An article written by Janie Lorber and released by The New York Times, shares a few personal stories of veterans paired with a service dog and the journeys they endeavor together being released into the civilian world.
Janie states that service animals are trained specifically to be “constantly scanning for snipers, hidden bombs and other dangers lurking in the minds of those with the disorder”. This additional security of knowing their dog is trained to scan, spot and alert make it possible for veterans to do things that they would not normally get or want to do without this service. Another point Janie Lorber makes in her article, For the Battle-Scarred, Comfort at Leash’s End, service dogs are also trained to keep other people a veteran may encounter in public at a “safe distance”. A personal story of a service dog named Myra, trained for veteran, Mr. Hyde, shows an example of this specific training. If Mr. Hyde were to come across someone whom he felt unsafe or unwanted attention from, he can tell his dog, “block”. Myra is then to to stand perpendicularly in front of him to keep other people at a distance. Myra is trained to watch every side of Mr. Hyde. If he asks Myra to “get his back”, she is to stand next to him facing the other way.
Myra’s ability to sit in front of him and prevent people from getting close to him, sit behind him or beside him and alert him if someone is approaching him, provides Hyde with a complete sense of security and comfort that allows him to do everyday activities that he would not get to do without the help of Myra. Mr. Hyde states that without Myra he would not feel safe enough to go out in public and leave his house. This again goes to show the powerful impact of providing veterans who suffer from PTSD with service animals as some would not be able to complete day-to-day activities without their services. In counterargument, not every veteran has the ability to own their own service animal for many reasons. Finances may not allow it or they don’t have accessibility to one, however, there are programs set up in order to help our veterans who may not be able to own a service dog be able to interact with them.
For example, a program called Warrior Canine Connection, with this program, Executive Director Rick Yount and Director of Research Meg Daley Olmert “work to identify and pursue research opportunities that explore why training a service dog relieves symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.” (Rick Yount, Warrior Canine Connection 2018, paragraph 2) This program may not provide a service animal directly to a PTSD veteran, but allows active duty service members and veterans the opportunity to experience this high quality connection. While training these dogs veterans get the chance to work on their social bonding skills, improve patience and learn how to control their emotions, all major benefits to a veteran suffering with PTSD.
These are the many reasons any veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would benefit from having a service animal. With it being proven they decrease depression, prevent loneliness and aid to panic attacks/night terrors, effectively pairing a service dog with a veteran, the dog provides an effective psycho-emotional grounding. With the rate of veterans with PTSD rising, it is important that medical facilities like the Veteran Affairs become aware and offer these services. Without support or treatment of any kind, a suffering patient will find it difficult to complete daily tasks, be able to sleep at night and find themselves in public places that become overwhelming and make them feel unsafe leading them to worse symptoms and tragic thoughts. With all the positive benefits service dogs provide, pairing veterans with a dog is the best course of action in treating PTSD and could help save the lives of millions of veterans who are struggling on a daily basis with this tragic disorder.