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How Service Dogs Can Ease Veterans’ PTSD

According to a new study, trained service dogs can interrupt panic attacks, wake veterans from nightmares, and more.

by Abbey Nickel
July 7, 2021
A service dog for PTSD walking outside looking up at the camera
Jennifer Brister / Stocksy

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New research published in Frontiers in Psychology shows that service dogs may be an effective complementary treatment for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More specifically, the dogs have been found to effectively disrupt anxious episodes and panic attacks, which is crucial in helping affected veterans adjust to daily life. 

In the past, research has shown that veterans can generally benefit from service dogs, but the exact role they play in treatment and day-to-day tasks was less clear — until now. This new study found that of all the tasks service dogs are trained to do, their ability to ease veterans’ anxiety was the most helpful, and the most often used. Unlike pet dogs, service dogs’ special training makes them more qualified to identify and disrupt anxious episodes.

“There has been some debate on what kind of training PTSD service dogs need to be effective and how their assistance may be different than what a pet dog can provide,” says Kerri Rodriguez, a human-animal interaction graduate student at Purdue University and lead author of the study. “This 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.”

How Service Dogs Keep PTSD Anxiety in Check

The study — which surveyed 216 veterans, including 134 with a service dog and 82 on a waitlist — found the service dogs’ training to detect increasing anxiety in veterans and provide physical contact (in the form of nudging, pawing, or licking during episodes) to be the most important and most often used in a typical day. The veterans also rated all of the service dogs’ trained tasks as “moderately” to “quite a bit” important in aiding their PTSD, including their ability to notice the veterans' nightmares and wake them up, as well as their training to look the opposite way in a crowded room or store, which provides veterans with a sense of security.

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Why the Human-Dog Bond is Important

Although service dogs will always act on their trained cues, a connection between them and the veterans proved to provide even more relief. In fact, the veterans in the study who already had a service dog actually rated the importance of the pups’ untrained behaviors higher than the importance of their trained tasks.

This suggests that there are therapeutic aspects of the service dogs’ companionship that help just as much, if not more, than their trained tasks, Rodriguez says. “These service dogs offer valuable companionship, provide joy and happiness, and add structure and routine to veterans’ lives that are likely very important for veterans’ PTSD."

Why Additional Research and PTSD Treatment Options Are Needed

Unfortunately, service dogs aren't a cure-all. Although veterans with PTSD who have them see a decrease in nightmares, flashbacks, and being hyper-aware in public, many still frequently struggle with amnesia and risk-taking.

“Both this research, as well as other related studies on PTSD service dogs, suggest that service dogs are not a standalone cure for PTSD,” says Maggie O’Haire, associate professor of human-animal interaction. “Rather, there appear to be specific areas of veterans’ lives that a PTSD service dog can help as a complementary intervention to other evidence-based treatments.”

During the study, veterans on the waitlist to receive a service dog had understandably higher expectations for treatment than those who already owned one, likely due to feelings of hope and excitement, “which may not necessarily be a bad thing,” says Rodriquez. “However, it is important for mental health professionals to encourage realistic expectations to veterans who are considering getting a PTSD service dog of their own.”

Note: K9s For Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of Service Dogs to military veterans suffering from PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and/or military sexual trauma helped support this study, which was conducted in preparation for an ongoing large-scale clinical trial studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time. Merrick Pet Care, Newman’s Own Foundation, and the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine also supported the work.

Republished with permission under the CC BY 4.0 license, courtesy futurity.org. May be edited for style and length. Source: Purdue University. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01638

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Abbey Nickel

Abbey Nickel is a writer for Purdue University, a top public research institution developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges.