Service Dogs For Military Veterans With PTSD: A Mental Health Perspective

Joel Eisenberg

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Military Service DogKaiser Health News - public domain

Author’s Note

This article is free of bias, and is based solely on medical science and perspectives of mental health professionals. No medical advice or otherwise is shared herein on the part of the author. All listed theories and facts within this article are fully-attributed to accredited experts, organizations, and media outlets, including the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association, Google Medical, VehiclesForVeterans.org, WebMD, Military.com, Amy Flowers (DVM), and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

For further perspective, I myself am a former mental health professional with training in Psychology. Though I left the field to become a full-time writer, I have continued my studies in the mental health realm.

Introduction

Firstly, it is necessary to state from the outset that if one suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) or believes they do, medical and mental health treatment is imperative.

If you are unsure, you can find the comprehensive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition definition of PTSD here, as shared on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website. For a more concise definition, see the American Psychiatric Association (APA) article on the matter, here.

Google Medical defines PTSD as the following, and claims 3% of the population suffers from some form of the disorder: The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.

PTSD must be diagnosed by a medical professional, in all suspected instances, before it can be treated.

What follows in this article is a focus on one particular psychological treatment as recommended by a host of such professionals, specifically for diagnosed at-home veterans who have returned home from their tours of duty: Adopting a service dog.

A Mental Health Perspective

According to “”5 Ways Dogs Help Veterans with PTSD,” as published on the 501(c)(3) nonprofit VehiclesforVeterans.org website, several valid reasons exist to partner retired military veterans with at-home service dogs.

Excerpted from the article, which also punctuates the need for professional help in such matters: Many different types of therapy can help treat the flashbacks, anxiety, depression, numbness, nightmares and other symptoms that characterize PTSD. While traditional therapy can be extremely beneficial, some veterans have difficulty accessing it in the VA system, or difficulty admitting the need for therapy. It's important to seek out professional help for PTSD, but veterans may also want to consider getting a pet. Psychology researchers have started to recognize the therapeutic benefits of owning a dog. No matter if it's a Pomeranian or a Pit Bull, adopting a dog can be surprisingly helpful for veterans with PTSD.

There are many companies throughout the country, in fact, that can help place service dogs with military veterans. See here for PDF report, “Organizations that Work to Provide Veterans with Service Dogs.” Included in this PDF is a list of entities throughout the United States that can help with such placement. Disclaimer: Such organizations form, dissolve, or merge with rapidity, and some states have specific laws about at-home vets and dogs. Please do your due diligence before reaching out to, or working with, any organization listed therein.

Service dogs can make a substantial difference in the mental health status of veterans, according to most highly-accredited mental health experts.

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Service DogiStock

However, dogs themselves are not immune from PTSD. See here for WebMD article, which discusses the signs of PTSD in dogs and its differences with that of common canine anxiety.

From the article, as peer reviewed by Amy Flower’s, DVM: A type of behavioral training called systemic desensitization is common for dogs with PTSD. It exposes your dog to whatever it is that brings on their anxiety or fear. If noise is the trigger, your dog will hear the noise very quietly at first and get a treat for good behavior. The noise will slowly get louder and the treats will keep coming, as long as they stay calm. The goal is to get your dog to associate the trigger with treats, not trauma. 

When a dog is placed with a veteran, great care must be taken to ensure compatibility. Placing a dog with PTSD symptoms with a veteran who suffers can cause notable harm to both.

Addressing this concern and others, Military.com offers an additional perspective. See here for “Service Dogs Better Than Emotional Support Dogs at Reducing PTSD Symptoms, Study Finds,” which addresses an in-depth study by the Department for Veteran’s Affairs.

From the March, 2021 article: Research involving 227 veterans -- 153 of whom remained with their paired dogs for the entire study -- showed that both types of animals helped decrease PTSD symptoms in their owners. But results were more significant in participants paired with a service dog. In addition, veterans paired with service dogs had fewer suicidal behaviors and less ideation at the 18-month point, while both groups displayed a decrease in other symptoms such as anger and disrupted sleep.

What all indicators seem to show is successful pairings of veteran and service dog can change two lives, not just one. Studies including those mentioned in the above articles have concluded the affection among parties is mutual.

Conclusion

As with service dogs utilized in non-military capacities, those adopted by (or for) retired or at-home veterans have shown major benefits both scientifically and psychologically. Frequently, service dogs are also placed with those who have also suffered physical handicaps.

If you are a veteran or know of one who can possibly be benefitted by a service dog, contact your local Veteran’s Administration for advisement, or companies in the above PDF as provided. Due diligence is necessary, regardless, as is a compatibility test period.

Thank you for reading. I hope this article has been helpful.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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