What You Need To Know About Service Dogs

Can Service Dogs Help Reduce Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in War Veterans?

Dog, hound, man’s best friend… dogs have many names. Besides being cute and fluffy companions, dogs can serve many other important purposes, and the research on what they can do for those with mental health conditions is promising. Service dogs seemingly have many positive effects for individuals suffering from physical disabilities, but mental health is something they can help with as well.

When Veterans return home from war, many deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. A study showed that upwards of 16% of those who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from PTSD, and that number is solely reported cases. PTSD can be debilitating, causing Veterans to avoid crowds or public places for fear of being triggered.

This past summer on August 25th, President Joe Biden signed the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemember for Veterans Therapy Act (often referred to as the PAWS Act) into law. This law requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to create a five-year program to provide service dogs to Veterans suffering from PTSD. Under this legislation, the VA is now supposed to work with organizations that train service dogs for mental health support. Previously the VA covered veterinary costs of services dogs for Veterans who have physical disabilities including mobility issues and blindness. The new law allows (but does not require) the VA to pay for the same costs for service dogs for mental health support.

While there is some evidence that service dogs may be able to help Veterans with their PTSD symptoms what does the research actually show?

Service and therapy dogs are used to help individuals across the Nation. In fact, an estimated 500,000 service dogs are currently helping individuals experiencing a wide variety of conditions right now. The overall consensus for service dogs assisting Veterans show that they tend to feel less depressed, less anxious, and miss work less frequently when they have a trained service dog.

Service Dogs in Action

What does it look like to have a service dog helping someone with PTSD? Service dogs can help treat the symptoms of PTSD in many ways. 

  1. Stress – Some Veterans with PTSD alerted their service dogs when they were feeling stressed, and the dog would help by either comforting or distracting them. 
  2.  Social Support – Service dogs can also help Veterans with PTSD by acting as social support. This is especially helpful for Veterans who have decided to avoid going out in public places due to fear of being triggered. For example, a service dog could “cover” a Veteran at the grocery store, letting the owner calmly retrieve an item off the shelf while providing comfort if someone is approaching as not to be a surprise. 
  3.  Anxiety – Having their service dog at their side can help them feel more comfortable and less likely to have an anxiety attack. If a Veteran is experiencing an anxiety attack, a service dog can be trained to “nudge” their owner and alert them to interrupting the anxiety attack and distracting the owner. At this point, the Veteran can re-focus on the dog by petting it or playing with it, ultimately recentering themselves.
  4.  Nightmares – Service dogs also aid their owners by waking a person from a nightmare, “sweeping” a room before their handler enters, or by turning on lights. 
  5.  Well being – Beyond actions, Veterans paired with service dogs had fewer suicidal behaviors and less suicidal ideation at the 18-month point. 

Depending on the needs of the Veteran, service dogs may be more helpful to some Veterans than others.

What does the research say?

When digging into it there are very few negatives when it comes to service dogs helping Veterans with PTSD. Service dogs have been shown to help Veterans by:

  • significantly lower overall PTSD symptoms
  • an overall increased psychological well-being
  • a better ability to cope with flashbacks and anxiety attacks 
  • a reduction in nightmares, 
  • fewer sleep disturbances, 
  • decreased anxiety, depression, and anger, 
  • higher levels of companionship and social reintegration 
  • lower levels of overall social isolation.

These results were most notably found in a pilot study from 2018 conducted by Maggie O’Haire, PhD at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. Many other studies have proven similar results.

While many studies show how beneficial service dogs can be, many factors play into the positive results, it is not magic. 

While service dogs have been shown to help with PTSD symptoms or reactions, one must remember that just having them around won’t fix everything. Veterans need to understand their own needs and work with a service dog and trainer to see results. Service dogs are more than just a pet, and continual training is important to keep their skills sharp. Service dogs are trained to work, so it is important to remember that an owner must understand how to work with their dog to see results. PTSD can also affect Veterans differently, so the same service dog may not benefit every Veteran suffering from PTSD, but rather Veterans would need different types of dogs depending on how they experience different triggers.

Not for everyone. 

Overall, Veterans who had a service dog felt that having this type of companion improved their quality of life and was successful in helping with depression and anxiety symptoms. However, some Veterans found that having a service dog actually worsened their condition or made things more complicated. One study found that upon receiving a service dog, Veterans reported difficulty adjusting to the added stressors of maintaining the training the service dog required. Integration of a dog into a family was an added stressor as well for many Veterans. Since dogs are beloved by many sometimes having a service dog draws added attention in public which is not beneficial for someone coping with PTSD symptoms. Understanding that a service dog is an adjustment and that the relief of symptoms may not be immediate is a crucial concept to understand. In fact, it could create additional stress and anxiety initially. Understanding the commitment of a service dog is very important.

Despite the initial adjustment, service dogs can help Veterans with PTSD who are willing to understand the commitment required, work with their dog and trainer for training, understand that it may take time to see results.