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Using Service Dogs to Treat PTSD

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that service dogs can be trained to call 911 on a rescue phone? Learn more about service dogs and how they assist individuals with PTSD from this lesson. Then test your knowledge with a quiz following the lesson.

What is PTSD?

Sam was 19-years-old when his house burned to the ground. He doesn't remember much about the fire itself; he just knows that he made it out and his father did not. Sam struggles with recurrent nightmares about the fire, avoids fireplaces or anything else that reminds him of the event, and is easily irritated. Sam visits a psychologist who diagnoses him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that results from experiencing a traumatic event.

Sometimes just seeing an image related to a traumatic event can cause distress in individuals
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The symptoms of PTSD are:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event, usually through nightmares or flashbacks related to the traumatic experience
  • Avoidance, e.g. steering clear of things that might remind you of the traumatic experience, trying hard to forget about the traumatic experience, and numbing oneself emotionally
  • Hypervigilence, also referred to as hyper-arousal, including being easily scared, having intense outbursts of anger, and problems with sleeping.

In order to help cope with his PTSD, Sam and his therapist agree that Sam should use a service dog.

What is a Service Dog?

The term service dog refers to a dog that has been specially trained to carry out beneficial tasks for a person who has a disability. For example, service dogs can be used to help people who are blind cross the street safely or open the door if their handler is not able to do so. Each service dog receives training that is specifically catered to their handler's specific needs. Since handlers rely upon their service dog's assistance, the animals are permitted in a majority of places. Service dogs are allowed in places where non-service dogs usually are not, such as stores or museums. Exceptions do exist to this rule. For example, a misbehaving dog may be asked to leave a business. Currently, there is not enough empirical research to determine whether or not individuals with PTSD benefit from service dogs. However, there are many individuals who have shared personal stories about how having a service dog has helped them. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs began a research study to determine the benefits of providing service dogs to individuals with PTSD.

Let's look at how a service dog has helped Sam manage his PTSD.

Service Dogs and PTSD

Sam's service dog is trained to help him deal with the side effects of his medication, symptoms associated with PTSD, and emergency situations that require assistance from people outside Sam's home. One night Sam was having an intense flashback that led to him feeling intense terror and chest pains. Sam's dog was able to sense Sam's distress, locate his medicine, and bring the medicine and a beverage to Sam so he could alleviate the symptoms. The dog also brought Sam a phone so that he could call emergency services if needed. Sam's dog knows how to open doors in the house and call 911 on a rescue phone. Each day the dog reminds Sam to take his medication by nudging him.

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