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Working Dog Spotlight: PTSD Service Dogs

April 28, 2020

PTSD service dogs have the important job of providing support to individuals who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This may mean performing different tasks for their handlers or offering companionship and emotional support in distressing situations.

It is estimated that nearly 8% of Americans will have some form of PTSD during their lifetime. Typically, PTSD affects people after experiencing a traumatic event or hardship. PTSD can result in panic attacks, severe anxiety, mood swings, or other patterns of behavior that can be distressful and disrupt daily life.

Luckily, there are special service dogs that are trained to assist their handlers and ease the burden of PTSD and provide support in distressing situations. Both service dogs and emotional support dogs can be beneficial to those suffering from PTSD.

Service dogs vs. emotional support dogs

There are two different classifications for dogs who help those with PTSD: service dogs and emotional support dogs. A service dog is a dog trained to do specific tasks for a person that they are unable to do because of a disability. A PTSD service dog goes through specific training in order to help their handler. Some of their duties may include:

  • Bringing medications to a person either on command or by an alarm or timer
  • Lead their trainer to an exit when they begin to experience an anxiety or panic attack
  • Wake up their handler during night terrors or nightmares
  • Distract a person from a triggering event or behavior by pawing, nudging, or licking
  • Guard or circle their handler in a crowded area to create personal space
  • Get help by alerting an individual or activating an emergency button
  • Alleviate anxiety and provide emotional grounding through nudging, pawing, or licking

It is important to know that every individual with PTSD is different, so their needs are different as well. The tasks each service animal performs will be based on their handler and their experiences with PTSD.

Emotional support dogs do not go through rigorous training as service dogs do. The job of an emotional support dog is to help their owners feel better through friendship and companionship. Just providing emotional support and companionship does not qualify a dog as a support dog, so emotional support animals aren’t always allowed in the same public places that service animals are such as restaurants and airplanes.

What do PTSD service dogs do?

Some of the important duties of PTSD service dogs have been outlined above, but the role of service and support dogs goes above and beyond any specific tasks they may perform. Both service dogs and emotional support dogs can have the important job of assisting those who experience PTSD.

Emotional support and therapy dogs can calm their handler if they are having an anxiety or panic attack. The dogs can notice certain behaviors such as crying, shaking, or stomping and nudge, lick, or paw them in order to soothe them. These dogs can also prevent substance abuse issues by providing important support and companionship that keep emotional issues in check and prevent unhealthy coping mechanisms through alcohol or drug abuse.

According to the American Psychological Association, studies show that dog ownership has mental health benefits. In a study comparing those with PTSD service dogs with those on a waitlist, owners of service dogs reported lower rates of depression, higher quality of life, and higher social functioning.

Characteristics of PTSD service dogs

In order to provide proper support and care for their handlers, service and support dogs need to have certain characteristics that make them the best fit for the job. Because they will often be in social settings, service and support dogs should be sociable with other people and animals. They should be able to be in tune with their handler’s emotions and needs but not too friendly or excited that they get distracted on the job.

Similarly, the dog needs to be inherently protective in a nonviolent or threatening way as they will need to support their handlers in a variety of situations. PTSD service or support dogs also need to be well-behaved and disciplined, fully ready to perform their duties whenever they are needed.

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Check out our blog for more Working Dog Spotlights – including this post about Search and Rescue Dogs.