A Soldier’s Best Friend: Therapy Dogs for PTSD

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus spends years struggling to return home after the Trojan War. Due to events occurring in his absence, he is forced to disguise himself as a beggar in order to carry out a surprise attack on men who have taken over his house. No one, not even his childhood friend, recognizes him upon his return. However, Argos, his faithful dog, who is now so old he cannot rise to greet his master, immediately recognizes Odysseus and painfully raises his head to greet him. The moment when Argos and Odysseus are reunited in silence signifies the importance of the relationship between soldiers and dogs. For many years Argos clung to a meager existence just to live for the moment when his beloved master returned to him. And after the much-awaited moment, the feeble dog “passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years” (Homer, Odyssey, book 17).

A faithful dog is balm for the wounded spirits of many, and perhaps the spirit of a soldier needs the faithfulness of a dog even more.

“Major Butch,” a therapy dog with the 219th Medical Detachment (Combat Operational Stress Control) concludes her tour in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field, Feb. 1, 2013.
“Major Butch,” a therapy dog with the 219th Medical Detachment (Combat Operational Stress Control) concludes her tour in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field, Feb. 1, 2013.

According to the U.S. Army, up to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and 30% of Vietnam veterans struggle with PTSD. In fact, studies show 1 in 5 of returning vets have PTSD, and those are just the reported and diagnosed cases. Military members with PTSD suffer from a plethora of physical and mental issues including depression, memory loss, and difficulties in their social and family life. Panic attacks, flashbacks and nightmares are common as well, and all these symptoms are merely the tip of the iceberg. Dogs play an important role in the treatment of PTSD, which affects far more men and women than studies report. Canine therapy has been proven time and again to provide substantial help and obvious results for PTSD sufferers.

Research has shown just how intuitive dogs really are when it comes to human emotions. Some theorize that dogs detect changes in their people’s scent due to hormonal fluctuations associated with stress. Others say dogs simply notice the change in body language, even when it is so subtle the person’s friends or family members may fail to notice. Regardless of whether a dog’s innate ability to detect stress and emotional pain comes from scent or visible cues, the fact remains that dogs are good at knowing when someone needs help. Many owners experience their dog’s natural instinct to comfort in response to crying or changes in tone. But it can go far beyond that for soldiers suffering from PTSD. For them, dogs can be a priceless tool in their fight with such a pervasive and often deadly problem.

Service dogs for men and women with PTSD are trained to respond in a multitude of ways. They may simply press their head into their master’s lap or nudge them with their nose, but even that simple physical contact makes a difference. Veterans with flashbacks can be brought out of it by a dog trained to jump on them, bark or lick their face, among other trained responses. And countless military members report being able to sleep through the night for the first time in quite awhile because they know their dog is there standing guard, ever vigilant and ready to both defend and alert them to danger. Some soldiers describe their therapy dog as their battle buddy for civilian life, and, indeed, these dogs fill that role in ways a human battle buddy would be unable.

Petting a dog, or even just looking at a dog, is proven to increase oxytocin production. Oxytocin, which is often referred to as the “love hormone,” affects bonding, trust and happiness, among other positive benefits. More recent studies show it can even have an anti-inflammatory effect. Interacting with a dog elevates production of oxytocin which has quite a few positive results for PTSD sufferers. Serotonin, a chemical associated with an overall feeling of well-being, is also increased with canine interaction while cortisol, which can increase stress, is reduced. Additionally, dog owners enjoy reduced blood pressure, statistically proven longer lives, and overall better health both physically and mentally. It should come as no surprise that veterans with PTSD being treated with service dogs have enjoyed significant improvements even in cases where their counselor believed there was little hope.

U.S. Navy Command Master Chief Kelly A. McNulty, with Regional Command Southwest, pets Joe, a therapy dog working at the wounded warrior barracks at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 6, 2013. Therapy dogs helped expedite recovery for Service members.
U.S. Navy Command Master Chief Kelly A. McNulty, with Regional Command Southwest, pets Joe, a therapy dog working at the wounded warrior barracks at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 6, 2013. Therapy dogs helped expedite recovery for Service members.

However, there is a downside despite the many benefits of using dogs to treat PTSD. The military won’t pay for these dogs, and the cost of training both the dogs and the soldiers is staggering – as much as $30,000. Although the military seems somewhat more open to the idea today than they were even a year ago, they still aren’t providing funding. Veteran’s Affairs (VA) wants to see an in-depth study, and one was started that was due to be completed in 2014. That is study NCT01329341, which was funded by the Department of Defense with $300,000 and is a non-randomized study involving an estimated 350 military members with PTSD. Only small amounts of information are available, but one of the most recent updates in May 2013 indicated the study has been stopped, and whether it is a temporary or permanent break is not mentioned. That means that right now the VA is not covering the cost of service dogs for PTSD. Fortunately, there are several successful groups that provide dogs to soldiers in need. Warrior Canine Connection, Paws for Purple Hearts and Paws and Stripes are just a few of the groups working hard to fill the need for service dogs for PTSD sufferers. And in May of 2013, the Texas House of Representatives passed a measure allowing military veterans with PTSD to have service dog. The bill also requires restaurants and other food stores to allow these service dogs in, with failure to comply resulting in monetary penalties and community service. The bill passed with an overwhelming 120-21 vote and marks important gains in the PTSD service dog movement.

With the assistance of a service dog, veterans have shown improved social skills, decreased anxiety and panic, and many other positive benefits. One veteran even remarked that after time with his service dog, a Golden Retriever, he was finally able to hug and kiss his children again and spend time with them without constantly scanning the trees for snipers or the road for bombs. PTSD is no small matter, and the more veterans able to obtain service dogs, the better. One of the risks that goes hand-in-hand with PTSD is suicide, and with service dogs, lives can be saved.  Additionally, veterans have been able to cut anxiety and anti-depressant medications in half or quit them entirely, and in the case of one 29-year-old, a service dog made it possible for him to walk into a grocery store for the first time in more than three years.  One study claimed 82% of military members using service dogs to treat their PTSD had reduced symptoms and 40% had cut their dosage of related medications. If even a fraction of these reports are true, it is well worth supplying dogs to these men and women in need.

The men and women of the military have given a great deal to our country without asking anything in return. If you as a dog owner, consider just how much the love and loyalty your dog gives you has affected your life positively, it makes absolute sense a dog can effectively combat PTSD. Not all wounds are worn on the outside, and dogs are a nonjudgmental, absolutely trustworthy and loyal companion for wounded warriors with psychological and emotional battle scars. Supporting the groups that supply service dogs to veterans in need is the least we can do. In the words of Michael Templet, “Always remember, if you have been diagnosed with PTSD, it is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is proof of your strength, because you have survived.”

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth

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