Updated: Feb 20
Before we begin, I want to start by saying that if you are a veteran suffering from PTSD, you are not alone. I too am a veteran, though I did not see any direct combat. I was in the Navy stationed aboard the USS Constellation during the first Gulf War. Having the veteran status gives us many avenues to connect with fellow veterans from all branches, especially through social media.
Every day we lose an average of 22 of our brothers and sisters in arms to suicide mostly caused by PTSD. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate help please call:
NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255
If you ever need anyone to just talk to, please feel free to reach out to me in a message on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HempForDogBlog and we can exchange contact information. Again, you are not alone.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an increasingly common affliction in society, and as time goes by, we are learning more about the condition too. Indeed, recent research has revealed a huge amount of new information about the disorder, allowing us to develop new ways of treating the condition and helping survivors to recover and live their lives to the fullest. One such solution that many survivors of PTSD have found themselves reliant upon is a PTSD service dog. But could a PTSD dog actually help provide support for an emotionally scarred sufferer?
What is a Veteran?
To start with, we’ll briefly look at the question, “what is a veteran”, as veterans are commonly affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – although the condition can technically affect anyone who has been involved with any form of traumatic and stressful event. A veteran is an individual who served for any period of time in any armed services for their country.
Their job role commonly involves them experiencing incredibly distressing and emotionally scarring events, which is why a disproportionate number of veterans end up suffering from post traumatic stress disorder compared to the rest of the population who have not served. This is largely irrelevant of the duration of time served and can also depend largely on the nature of the battles being fought (as explained by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).
How Long Have Veterans Served For?
When you think about what a veteran is (or, perhaps more appropriately, who a veteran is), you probably think about those individuals who have served in the armed forces for a long period of time. However, a veteran can be classed as such even if they only served a single day in the armed forces; depending on their experiences during this time, even this short period could be enough to develop PTSD, although it is far more likely to occur in veterans whose careers spanned over longer periods of time and who saw more violence.
What is PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly abbreviated to PTSD, is a mental health condition that develops in the aftermath of a highly stressful and traumatic event. Generally speaking, those individuals who have experienced interpersonal trauma are more likely to develop PTSD compared to those who have experienced other forms of disasters or non-assault based trauma.
Most commonly, the condition comes about as a result of rape or child abuse, however, many veterans of war often find themselves suffering from the condition as a result of the atrocities that they have seen on the battlefield. In addition to this, military sexual trauma is also a high cause of PTSD, with as many as 55% of women and 38% of men experiencing sexual harassment during their time in uniform.
Symptoms of PTSD
There are many symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but some of the most common symptoms include reliving past events and trauma; avoiding particular places that trigger memories about the cause of the trauma; excessive emotional responses including anxiety, jumpiness, and irritability; tiredness and fatigue; and general negative cognitions and mood. All of these symptoms may be present in an individual or the sufferer may only experience a small number of these symptoms – it varies from person to person.
How Widespread is PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a relatively common condition, with as many as 3.6% of Americans suffering from the condition over the course of the year; furthermore, it is estimated that almost 8 million Americans will suffer from PTSD during their lives at some point in time, according to WebMD. It is also generally seen that there are more sufferers of PTSD who are women than men; this statistic is likely due to the increased incidence of domestic violence, rape, and abuse for women than for men. However, men can also experience the condition; veterans of war, in particular, are prone to developing the condition in the aftermath of the horrors that they have faced, and veterans are generally more likely to be men.
Treatment for PTSD
PTSD is a long term condition and one that many people may struggle to fully recover from. As a result of this, treatment options for PTSD generally focus on helping the patient learn how to live with their condition. Most modern treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, resultantly, will focus on a combination of therapy and counseling; as well as this, some antidepressant medications can also be prescribed by doctors to help with the symptoms, particularly those caused by anxiety.
However, there in an emerging amount of evidence that is suggesting another solution to the problem may be possible. Indeed, studies have shown that service dogs may be able to provide supplementary support for sufferers from PTSD alongside medication and therapy.
How Dogs Can Support PTSD Sufferers During their Recovery
There are potentially many ways in which a PTSD service dog could support a sufferer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during their recovery. Of these, perhaps the most noticeable and influential means of help is likely to be in helping alleviate the symptoms of anxiety that can be a result of PTSD. But how can a psychiatric service dog help to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and could they be a suitable supplementary form of treatment alongside other support options?
One of the most obvious ways in which a PTSD dog can help combat the symptoms of anxiety comes from the companionship that they can offer. For many sufferers from anxiety, having a dog around who is always there, no matter the circumstances, can offer a source of great comfort.
Loneliness and depression are both aggravated in circumstances where an individual is lacking in companionship, but having a dog around can provide support even in conditions when there is no one else to talk to. And let’s face it – there are few things nicer to return to when you’re feeling a little down than a canine companion loyally waiting by the door for a cuddle and a scratch.
The Importance of Friends and Support Networks for PTSD Sufferers
Another way in which owning a dog can boost companionship for sufferers of PTSD is their ability to help people make connections. For sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, making new friends – or reacquainting with old friends – can be incredibly hard.
Many PTSD sufferers can find that their existing relationships suffer as a result of the condition, too; PsychCentral explains that this inability to make or retain friends is due to “symptoms that interfere with trust, emotional closeness, communication, responsible assertiveness, and effective problem solving”. However, they then go on to point out that it is important for PTSD survivors to make and rekindle new and existing support networks and systems – and a dog can provide exactly the catalyst needed for this.
Having a psychiatric service dog can provide a topic for discussion that is unrelated to the trauma the individual has suffered, and in turn, this can lead to new friendships being made or existing relationships strengthening. A strong and durable support system is essential if PTSD survivors are to fully recover, and isolation can make this a real challenge. The daily walk with the dog, though, can be a good way to meet new friends and get relationships going gently.
Offering a Focus Point
It is also important to consider that having a PTSD psychiatric service dog around can help to offer an additional sense of purpose in a person’s life. Not having a sense of purpose can be a major challenge for many people, let alone sufferers from PTSD. For many war veterans in particular, returning to a life of normality following times of war and suffering can be particularly challenging, but having a dog to focus on and provide for can be an important goal.
Along the same lines as this, another key reason as to why having a dog can help sufferers of PTSD to recover is the need for them to be walked. Certainly, if the owner wasn’t feeling able to walk their pet that day, it would be possible to hire a dog walker – but taking your dog out for a walk can offer many opportunities in and of itself. Walking the dog is a task that has to be done daily, rain or shine, and this sense of routine can be comforting for many veterans suffering from PTSD.
Getting In Some Exercise
Furthering on from this, getting out into the fresh air can help veterans engage in plenty of exercises. Exercise is proven to boost morale and overall wellbeing, with a daily walk or jog helping to release endorphins that can combat stress and anxiety. Indeed, as explained by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.”
With this being a widely accepted benefit associated with exercise, it’s clear to see then that having a PTSD dog that requires daily walking could be a good way of helping to alleviate some of the stress and distress caused by anxiety. While exercise alone is unlikely to offer a full solution to the challenges, this when combined with other benefits of owning a dog may be able to help emotionally scarred PTSD sufferers find some comfort from their symptoms.
Sensory Stress Relief
Though this final point might be a slightly weaker point in comparison to the others we have raised so far, it’s still worth noting. It has been found that stroking an animal – be it a dog, a cat, or any other species with soft fur – can help to lower blood pressure and provide calming sensations. Therefore, having a dog about the house can be a good way to ease stress and anger for PTSD sufferers, both of which are common symptoms of the disorder and which can complicate the healing process.
What the Studies Say About Dogs for PTSD Patients
So, we’ve clarified that dogs may be able to help with PTSD in many ways – but are these effects proven? What do the studies say about providing emotionally scarred veterans with a PTSD service dog?
One major study into the topic was led by Kerri Rodriguez, a graduate student at Purdue University. She was a lead author of a study into emotional support dogs for PTSD sufferers, and concluded from her results that “study suggests that veterans are, in fact, using and benefiting from the specific trained tasks, which sets these dogs apart from pet dogs or emotional support dogs.”
The PTSD dogs involved in the study were specialist animals that had undergone extensive service dog training in order to prepare them for their role as a service dog. The dogs’ training included identifying cues for distress and anxiety and subsequently attracting the individual’s attention to distract them from their anxiety through a series of nudges, paws, or licks. Furthermore, the service dog training procedures also trained the dogs to be aware of signs that their owner was experiencing a nightmare resulting from the PTSD, allowing the dog to wake the owner and prevent the suffering from continuing.
On average, veterans reported that their dogs provided assistance in these matters on average 3.16 times per day, indicating that the dogs’ emotional support was highly influential.
How to Recognize a Service Dog
Recognizing a service dog while out and about is easy, as most service dogs are required to wear a service dog vest. These service dog vests identify the dogs as service animals, meaning that they are able to be granted access to establishments that they might otherwise not be allowed into such as restaurants. The service dog vest also serves to reassure nearby individuals that the dog has undergone extensive service dog training and is on duty at the time.
Service dogs offer an incredibly important role in our modern society, assisting many people in their day-to-day lives. PTSD dogs can also provide support for a veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, making them a service animal of great interest.
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