Your Dog, PTSD and Getting Help
It isn’t uncommon for someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to get a dog. PTSD is one of the few mental illnesses triggering anxiety and other symptoms in response to external events. Real life triggers create their own set of unique challenges and opportunities. We exist in a world full of everyday anxiety which triggers many PTSD symptoms.
For someone needing assistance physically or emotionally, man’s best friend not only provides companionship, but he also improves the quality of life. When considering assistance dogs decide whether to hire a dog trainer, work with service dog organizations such as America’s Vet Dogs or Military Working Dogs if you are a veteran, or decide to train your canine on your own.
Benefits of Dogs for PTSD
The goal of any service dog, PTSD-trained or not, is to help the person suffering from symptoms find better coping mechanisms to return to life more independently. Dogs are trained to recognize and assist with memory triggers, avoidance systems, mood assistance, and more.
Assistance dogs are trainable to provide support in the four categories of symptoms of PTSD:
Training for Intrusive Memories Symptoms
One of the most common conditions a PTSD service dog assists with is helping owners during intense flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks wrought with anxiety and confusion. A PTSD service dog is trained to recognize signs of these traumatic mental returns and then interrupt the cycle.
Trained dog's behavior breaks this mental cycle with simple things like a nudge of their nose or touch from their paw that comforts their owner's stress and pulls their owner back. The goal is to halt the progression of the memory or nightmare.
Training for Avoidance Symptoms
Isolation and avoidance are the natural coping mechanisms of PTSD sufferers. The unpredictability of the world outside combined with PTSD sets of triggers and exacerbates anxiety to do anything, including leaving the house. Trained PTSD service dog behavior is aimed to help manage anxiety driven triggers and to provide support when they do occur.
PTSD service dog behavior is trained to support the individual triggers of the owner. Trained behaviors include deeming a path safe such as investigating around a corner for danger and then nudging or pawing to alert the owner of a trigger. A PTSD dog could indicate to an owner that it is time to leave by walking to a door and pulling on a leash tethered to open it. Often these service dogs are seen sitting in front of the owner to create a bubble of space and line of defense.
Owners find that the security of knowing they are being watched and supported gives them the comfort to return to the occurrences of daily life.
Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood
Feelings of hopelessness, emotional numbness, and negative thoughts are often overwhelming when suffering from a stress disorder. A connection to a dog is one of the purest forms of joy. The unconditional love of a dog for their owner brings feelings of worthiness when everything else seems bleak. Owning a dog, in and of itself, help return positive thoughts and emotions into a distressed person’s life.
Training a dog to hug or touch his owner provides physical contact necessary to basic human existence. Additional trained dog behavior increases the level of assistance a dog provides.
Changes in Physical and Emotional Reactions
Substance abuse is another common coping mechanism for those struggling with PTSD. Service dogs offer support in recovery by providing a new coping mechanism to replace the old. Bonding with and caring for a dog is an outlet when dealing with strong emotions. A dog’s need to be walked outside forces the owner outside to interact with others and reduce isolation at home.
Talking about problems is a proven way to overcome guilt and shame. Studies have shown that having a dog present encourages owners to open up and share. Assistance dogs are excellent companions that assist in coping with emotional reactions and help the owner begin to change their responses to situations.
Training for Additional Benefits
Assistance dogs aid in all areas of life. In addition to supporting PTSD symptoms, they are there to help with other PTSD-like symptoms and assisting in making life just a bit easier.
Medication management for someone with PTSD can be tricky, especially with many medications taken at different times of the day. Service dogs are conditioned to react to a sound that then alerts the dog to notify his owner that it is time to take action. Service dogs will retrieve medicine when alerted by a specific sound and bring it as the reminder that it is time to take that medication.
Safety during a panic attack is an issue when the attack has become overwhelming. Service dogs are trained to sense rising in breathing, body temperature and blood pressure, suggesting an oncoming panic attack to then help redirect their owners.
Types of Assistance Dogs
Service, emotional support, and therapy dog titles are often used interchangeably when referring to a canine support animal. Each of these terms applies to very different levels of assistance and protection the dog provides to his owner.
PTSD Service Dog - Task Oriented
Service dogs assist with tasks that the owner cannot complete themselves due to mental disabilities such as anxiety disorder, PTSD, or physical disabilities such as traumatic brain injury. Specific tasks include fetching water or medication for anxiety, alerting to a PTSD induced panic attack, and tugging open doors to aid people with disabilities.
PTSD service dogs are the formal, hands-off dogs that you often see wearing a vest. Hands-off means that no one should approach and try to pet or play with the dog while he is on duty. They are working dogs trained specifically to their owner and their owner’s needs. A working service dog is allowed access to all ground locations under federal protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Assistance Dogs International (ADI) offers additional information regarding the requirements for an Internationally recognized service dog.
Emotional Support Animals - Comfort-Oriented
Emotional support animals provide comfort to owners who suffer from emotional or mental illnesses. A well-trained canine uses touch in a variety of ways to soothe overwhelming feelings, bond, and provide companionship to owners. The dog also gives them a sense of purpose and belonging.
While an emotional support dog does not receive the same ADA protected access as a service dog it is prescribed by a licensed therapist and does have many protections under state and federal laws.
An emotional support dog is protected under the Fair Housing Act and is exempt to pet policies. This means a landlord can’t evict you if you get a lawful prescription for an emotional support animal. Additionally, an emotional support dog is allowed to fly in the cabin of an airplane with his owner in accordance with the ACAA.
Therapy Dog - Group-Oriented
Therapy dogs make frequent visits to schools, hospitals, and senior care facilities helping those with psychiatric or emotionally challenging conditions reduce stress and anxiety. Therapy dogs provide comfort in settings such as hospitals, senior facilities, airports, colleges, and anywhere else groups of people could benefit from mental health aid.
As for non-working dogs, therapy dogs are not granted ADA protected access to areas prohibited to dogs including restaurants and grocery stores. Check with your local state and government to determine laws regarding access.
Which Type of Assistance is Right
When deciding which level of support is right for you, consider how strictly you would like to adhere to training. Service dogs dedicate themselves to their owner and owner’s needs; they spend most of their time working. An emotional support dog is a companion not focused on specific aid tasks.
Is Certification Required
Service, emotional support, and therapy dogs are not required by the ADA to have a certification. Additionally, the dogs are not required to be identifiable by a vest, tag, or harness. However, there are times when certification will be necessary to ensure everyone is safe.
Service dog ADA protection prohibits facilities from requesting documented certification, details of the disability the service dog aids in, or require the dog demonstrate a task. The facility's staff is allowed to ask two questions to determine service dog status:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Flying with assistance dogs is not covered by Federal ADA Laws. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) sets forth the requirements and rights of flying with a PTSD service dog.
While certification is not required in all instances of PTSD dog use, all assistance dogs must be registered and licensed according to the local city or state requirements.
Assistance Dog Requirements
Whether training a service, emotional support, or therapy dog basic guidance and requirements apply:
The Dog Trainer and Grooming
Grooming is not only essential to the health and well-being of the dog, but it is also an essential requirement of assistance dogs when in society. The requirement behind assistance training is that the dog not interfere with the day to day operations occurring in public. Regular grooming ensures the dog is clean, free of offensive odors, and decreased shedding.
The Dog Trainer and Basic Obedience
Basic obedience skills are a must when training assistance dogs. Without necessary obedience skills, the dog is not considered an assistance dog and will be asked to leave public places. Ensure that your dog is under control with training on basic commands such as sit, stay, heel, lie down, and come.
The Dog Trainer and Elimination
Nothing will get a dog kicked out of public places as fast as eliminating in the wrong area. Ensure training includes housebreaking. Assistance dogs should never use a building as a restroom. Training assistance dogs to eliminate on command ensures elimination will occur in the proper location at the appropriate time.
The Dog Trainer and Manners
All assistance dogs require training. Training dogs must be well behaved in public, remain under control at all times, and not cause a disturbance ensures they will be considered service animal. Place focus on manners such as not sniffing or bothering other people.
Training must include avoiding aggressive behavior. Any dog that barks, growls, or shows teeth will not be considered an assistance dog.
TRAINING SERVICE DOGS FOR PTSD
PTSD service dogs require additional training beyond the basics. Emotional support and therapy dogs will provide comfort in situations where service dogs must provide aid.
PTSD service dogs must be able to complete specific tasks which aid the owner with disabilities caused by panic attacks, anxiety, or other stress. Training a service dog to complete specific tasks which assist people with disabilities begins with dog behaviors often referred to as being a “Good Citizen Dog,” which are later expanded upon to support PTSD needs.
Positive Reinforcement for Training
The basis of all training is an effective method of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement focuses on rewarding the dog’s behavior you want and ignoring the behavior you do not want. Training is begun once the dog has reached six-months-old and at any age after that.
Positive reinforcement is offered in the form of a treat, a clicker, praise, or any combination of the above. The goal is to show the dog the behavior you want, offer a reinforcement, and encourage the dog to repeat the action on their own. Reward when the dog performs the behavior on their own.
Nudge and Paw Training
The nudge/paw is used to alert or comfort the owner. The assistance dog trains to respond to PTSD-like symptoms alerts to the owner’s behavior and, responds with an assisting action. When considering a panic attack, as an example, PTSD service dogs will nudge or paw the owner at the first sign of symptoms to stop or shorten the attack.
A nudge allows for a gentle method of interacting with the owner, whereas pawing leads to a stronger method of gaining attention. Training each of these methods begins the same. Start with a treat and place it where the dog can smell it.
After placing the treat in or under the palm of the hand begin the training:
- Nudge: Wait until the dog investigates the hand with his nose. Praise or click the behavior and offer the treat. Repeat until this becomes a natural action.
- Paw: Use the hand not holding the treat to lift the dog's paw into your palm. Praise or click while offering the treat. Repeat until this is his conditioned response.
Once a dog understands the basic command of nudge or paw it is time to incorporate real world situations. Identify symptoms that indicate an upcoming attack and begin performing them when beginning the desired behavior training. For example, shuffle your feet as you extend the treat. With consistent positive enforcement training, the dog will associate the shuffle as a trigger to begin the behavior.
Training a service dog to persist until stopped is just as important as training to begin the behavior. Add a command, verbal or physical, each time the behavior is rewarded. Delay the reward and command, while continuing to encourage the dog to paw or nudge, to ensure the dog persists until the owner no longer needs assistance.
Bark and Speak Training
A valuable safety task is training PTSD service dogs to bark for higher levels of alert. If the owner is in the middle of a panic attack and therefore not alert to the surroundings a PTSD service dog will stay tuned to the surroundings. When a fire alarm goes off, the service dog will bark until the owner responds.
To begin training for bark or speak tasks:
- Encourage your dog to bark by exciting your dog or ringing the doorbell. Praise and reward the bark while adding a verbal command such as “speak.” Repeat this until your dog no longer needs prompting.
- When the dog begins to understand the association, speak the command. Reward the bark and associated behavior with praise or a reward.
- Add the command that will trigger the dog while working. Extend the time before you respond to train the dog to be persistent until he has your attention.
Retrieve and Fetch Training
A PTSD service dog training option is to teach fetching an item the owner is unable to grab. The opportunities are endless and are dependent on the needs of the owner.
If the service dog will help with medication management:
- Begin with the object you would like retrieved, such as a medicine bottle, and a treat.
- Start a game of fetch. Throw the object and say the command you would like to use.
- Reward the completed behavior.
- Once fetch is established, move the game into reality.
- Place the medicine bottle on the counter.
- Point to the item.
- Say the command.
- Reward the completed behavior.
- When the dog knows where to locate the item practice the command from another room.
Tug and Pull Training
Training the dog to tug or pull will aid in more than just pulling a wheelchair. If the owner is in a situation that the dog recognizes as hazardous, the dog tugs the leash and pull his owner to the door.
To train a service dog to tug or pull:
- Begin with a rope and a treat.
- Encourage the dog to take the end you are not holding.
- Pull gently.
- Reward when the dog pulls back.
- Add in a verbal or physical command.
PTSD Dog Breeds
Dogs and PTSD is a form of evidence-based treatment designed to return the ability to function in stress and anxiety-laden situations after a traumatic event. Once the level of assistance is determined, it is time to consider dog breeds.
Service dogs dedicate themselves to their owner, their owner’s stress and anxiety symptoms, and their owner’s needs. Any dog breed is an option to for an assistance dog as long as it is well behaved, controlled in public, and well groomed. However, some dog breeds have innate capabilities that provide additional benefits with specific disabilities.
Consider individual needs and chose a breed based on which combinations of size, temperament, alertness, and intelligence will best provide assistance.
Service Dog Breeds
When selecting service dog breeds begin with choosing dogs known for their loyalty and alertness:
- Pomeranians are the right choice when needs require medical alerts. Size limits their physical abilities, but they are known for their alertness and ability to recognize changes in medical conditions.
- Collies are known for their intelligence and ability to detect seizure activity. They are an excellent dog for psychiatric service, anxiety disorder, and PTSD.
- German Shepards are known for their ability to help maneuver and remain alert to potential dangers. When needs include aid in detecting potential dangers, the German Shepherd is the dog for the job.
Emotional and Therapy Dog Breeds
Emotional support and therapy dogs are about comfort and are allowed to focus on more than just owner. Dog breeds suited to emotional support and therapy rolls are ones that tend towards friendliness and affection.
- Labradors are known for their stable and balanced personalities. Their calm demeanor suits them ideally to psychiatric service.
- Golden Retrievers are known for their gentle temperament and strong ability to love. They excel at providing physical and emotional support.
- Havanese dogs excel at providing love and physical comfort. They are smart and quick to train.
Whichever breed and level assistance you select know that you will have a companion that is always there for you. If purchasing a trained assistance dog is not the right choice for you do not be discouraged. Training a service dog at home is done with the right tools and guidance.
Kimberlee Leonard is a certified pet first aid and CPR instructor. Her company, Safer Family Pets helps families prepared for worst-case scenarios including evacuations during natural disasters. She enjoys time with her beagle mix, Arky who enjoys “sit-walks” where he sits more than walks, enjoying the fresh mountain air.