Their Guard is Never Down: 6 Surprising Ways Service Dogs Help Vets with PTSD

Animals have been enriching our lives as faithful companions for thousands of years. Their friendship and assistance has been shown to substantially comfort people in even the most stressful of situations, not the least of which is the daily struggle veteran service members with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

Service dogs have long been trained to aid people with physical impairments or injuries, but new approaches to mental health are incorporating canines to substantial benefit. Far from just leading their handlers out of danger, there’s a lot more going on at the end of that leash than some may think.

6. Biological Effects

A wagging tail a day may keep the doctor away. There is increasing evidence that simply petting a dog triggers biological systems in the brain that make us feel better. Looking into their eyes may strengthen the bond even more.

The catalyst in each of these examples is increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone linked to feelings of happiness and love. According to Science, “mutual gazing” between dog and human has a surprisingly positive effect on our mental wellbeing.

“Of the duos that had spent the greatest amount of time looking into each other’s eyes, both male and female dogs experienced a 130 percent rise in oxytocin levels, and both male and female owners a 300 percent increase,” reported David Grimm.

When used in combination with PTSD treatment, dogs and the increased oxytocin levels they promote have helped veterans in constantly heightened states of vigilance come back down to a manageable level.

“Oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects—the opposite of PTSD symptoms,” Meg Daley Olmert of Warrior Canine Connection told Smithonian.com.

Are you feeling better already?
Are you feeling better already?

5. Social Situations

For the millions who now suffer mental health issues because of military service, subdued emotional response or introversion may pose hurdles to positive social experiences. Veterans, after years in combat and a rigid disciplinary environment, often have trouble reentering civilian life. But those missing feelings of trust and feelings of safety can be gradually restored with a canine companion.

“Trust is a big issue in PTSD. It can be very difficult to feel safe in the world after certain experiences, and being able to trust the immediate environment can take some time,” according to Psychology Today. “Dogs help heal by being trustworthy.”

Routine care and interaction with a service dog can ease wary individuals into social opportunities, too. According to a report by the Canadian Foundation for Animal Assisted Support Services, Companion animals can be effective at mitigating loneliness and isolation.

“In some instances the benefit is located at the level of everyday routines, as in the case of dog walking or the patterns and obligations of caring for animals,” wrote Dr. James Gillett, PhD. “Beyond the everyday, social benefits can extend to creating a bridge between the individual and broader public sphere, again in the case of a dog being a catalyst for social interactions at the park or in social settings.”

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4. Command Response

Communication barriers often plague those with PTSD. Where it may be hard for them to speak clearly and appropriately with colleagues, a veteran can work on communication issues while training and gaining the trust of a service dog.

Experience with a dialogue of short commands is something military veterans have obvious experience with. Translated to a relationship with a companion animal, this puts many vets and service dogs at an advantage when it comes to understanding each other.

“Many military personnel return from their deployments and have difficulty functioning in their relationships,” writes Tracy Stecker Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “They are used to giving and getting orders. This usually doesn’t work well in the typical American home, and I’ve talked to many servicemen and women who have been told to knock that off once they got home. Well, dogs love it.”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, regular positive interaction with a service dog is vital to rebuilding communication skills.

“Teaching the dogs service commands develops a patient’s ability to communicate, to be assertive but not aggressive, a distinction some struggle with,” reports Chris Colin.

Did someone say
Did someone say “fetch?”

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3. Good Night’s Sleep

Transitioning from combat to civilian life can be a jarring experience. Veterans, highly trained and wary of new orders or incoming fire at any second, may have a hard time leaving that hyper-vigilance behind. The VA does not currently cover the cost of service dogs for veterans with PTSD or TBI, but research consistently shows that veterans gain a sense of safety and wellbeing with their canine companions.

According to Sleep Review, service animals are proving effective in diminishing recurring nightmares in those with PTSD. This is exciting news, as there have previously been no reliable treatments for nightmares.

“Nightmares have been associated with fear of sleep, which in turn perpetuates hyperarousal and insomnia,” wrote Mary W. Rose, PsyD, CBSM, lead researcher in a study on service dogs and sleep disorders. “In the Veterans Affairs Medical Centers system, service animals are being more widely used to diminish the impact of PTSD-related nightmares through training in which they immediately awaken the nightmare patient and provide comfort, a role that no medication has yet to accomplish.”

Some animal trainers and sleep specialists may advise against cosleeping with pets in anticipation of reinforcing unwanted behavior or sleep interruption. In the case of PTSD treatment, however, the results show the opposite.

A full night's sleep is just what the dogtor ordered.
A full night’s sleep is just what the dogtor ordered.

2. Getting Up, Getting Out

With all that service dogs provide their owners, they need to be properly cared for. That can be a big responsibility, but one that brings out the best in capable veterans. According to USA Service Dogs, exercise with an animal prompts a further release of oxytocin and a reinforcement of trust and friendship.

“Dogs are good for exercise, whether it is running, walking or something else entirely,” writes USA Service Dogs’ Reese Garcia. “Service dogs help coax veterans with PTSD back into the great outdoors. Even a ‘simple’ overnight camping trip can be a godsend in helping a veteran pave the way to better emotional and mental health.”

Taking that to a community level, groups have materialized across the country promoting canine-human bonding through outdoor exercise as a treatment for PTSD and other mental health issues. One such group, K9 Fit Club, brings dog owners together in a safe and controlled area to work on their fitness and training commands.

K9 Fit Club Lansing was founded by Rachael Loucks whose previous TBI led to a struggle with memory loss.

“It’s a pretty intensive program,” Loucks told the Lansing State Journal. “The reason I wanted to do K9 Fit Club. I don’t like being told that I can’t do things. I understand that I do have limitations, but I also refuse to believe that just because I’ve been labeled with a permanent disability, that I can’t contribute to society. I’m only 32 years old.”

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1. Field Reinforcements

When it comes down to it, sometimes all we need is someone who’s got our six. And that’s exactly what the companionship of a dog can provide for veterans with PTSD.

Luis Carlos Montalvan, who served as an Army captain in Iraq, is the author of the memoir “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him.” In an interview with Time, Montalvan praised his dog, Tuesday, for helping him survive the daily battle he faces in post-service life.

“Tuesday keeps me in the moment. He is trained to monitor my breathing and heart rate, so he can nudge me back to reality before a situation starts,” Montalvan said. “I was also prone to hyper-vigilance; now, I can put my hand on Tuesday and feel calmness returning to my mind. That may not sound like much, but for the two years before I adopted Tuesday, I was too paranoid and withdrawn to leave my apartment. I lived like a hermit, cut off even from my family. Tuesday has helped me reconnect with the world.”

Don't worry, she's got your back!
Don’t worry, she’s got your back!

PTSD service dogs can lessen a veteran’s perception of physical pain, decrease agitation and aggression, increase social interaction and ability to manage daily living, lower blood pressure and heart rate, decrease loneliness, and ease anxiety or depression. There’s no doubt service dogs for PTSD can be part of an effective treatment to improve the quality of veterans’ lives, which is why the VA should cover the cost of service dogs for psychiatric conditions.

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