It’s no surprise that dogs can soothe us when we feel troubled. But research shows bonding with dogs has positive benefits even on a biological level. Dogs elevate levels of the hormone oxytocin in our bodies, which promotes feelings of trust and well being. Oxytocin also heightens the ability to interpret facial expressions, helps one overcome paranoia and can have positive effects on social interactions.
A specially trained PTSD service dog can provide an extra sense of security and have a calming effect on veterans, help with episodes of depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as being loving companions. These dogs can sense a PTSD veteran’s mood and will know when it’s a difficult day for their veteran, sometimes before the veteran may even fully realize their own emotional state. Additionally, these service dogs are trained by qualified organizations to respond to a PTSD episode and help bring their humans back to a relaxed and coherent state.
Experts agree that approximately 20% of veterans experience PTSD after their time serving on the front lines of the military no matter their branch of service. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined as a mental health condition triggered by a terrifyingly traumatic event – either witnessing it or experiencing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks and nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts related to the event…and those are just a few of the symptoms and challenges veterans surviving with PTSD face each and every day.
From the VA, “Veterans with substantial mobility limitations associated with a mental health disorder, PTSD, for which a service dog has been identified as the optimal way to address the mobility impairment may be eligible for veterinary health benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Mental Health Mobility Service Dog Initiative. A diagnosis of substantial mobility limitation indicates that most common life and work activities (i.e., leaving the house, or getting to medical appointments, using public transportation, etc.) are impaired or prevented for the person more than half the time. Under the Mental Health Mobility Service Dog Initiative, this benefit has been offered for Veterans with a mental health condition. It provides comprehensive coverage for the canine’s health and wellness and any prescription medications necessary to enable the dog to perform its duties in service to the Veteran.”
While the VA does not pay for the adoption or purchase of a trained service dog, there are many organizations whose mission is to help veterans obtain and learn to work with these canine companions. The VA, however, does provide, for qualifying veterans living with PTSD, a Veterinary Health Benefit and equipment for the working life of the trained PTSD service dog. This benefit is administered via the Offices of Mental Health Services and Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service at VHAPSASClinicalSupportTeam@va.gov and once a veteran is approved they are directed to an ADI-accredited agency to apply for a service dog. The VA does NOT pay for grooming, boarding, food or other routine expenses associated with dog ownership.
Among the many reputable and amazing organizations dedicated to helping match veterans with highly-skilled service dogs, including specialized PTSD service dogs, is K9s for Warriors. K9s for Warriors rescues and trains shelter dogs to be paired as service dogs for warriors with service-connected PostTraumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual Trauma.The goal of their work is helping to end veteran suicide and return our nation’s brave veterans to a life of independence and dignity. They are the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for disabled American veterans. To date, the organization has rescued over 1,000 shelter dogs and paired them with over 600 veterans in need.
The non-profit organization provides PTSD service dogs of the highest quality at no cost to those participating in the program in order to help restore their physical and emotional independence. Their focus is on healing – helping the veteran and paired service dog build a bond to facilitate healing and recovery. As the healing takes place, the reintegration to society begins. Warriors can return to their communities with a new “leash” on life as productive citizens who make a positive difference. After completing their three-week training program the veterans have gained the emotional means to repair their relationship with themselves, their families and their friends.
Roughly 90% of their service dogs come from shelters or are owner-surrendered. Instead of a life of abandonment or euthanasia, they are given a new purpose. With each graduate pair, K9’s for Warriors save two lives; they rescue the dog, and the dog rescues the warrior.
Currently, K9’s for Warriors works exclusively with veterans disabled serving during or after 9/11/01. While the disability does not need to be combat related, applicants must have a verified, clinical diagnosis of PTSD, TBI, or MST to qualify for the program. At this time, K9s For Warriors does not provide Service Dogs to individuals who are legally blind or hearing impaired. They accept applications from all 50 states. Before being matched with their new PTSD service dog, applicants participate in a phone interview to assess their needs, discuss their lifestyle, work environment, personality and family. Veterans also must agree to a background check before acceptance into the program and meeting their dog. Experts working with the organization pair candidates with the service dog best suited for them. Veterans do not get to choose their dog nor supply their own dog to the K9s for Warriors for training.
Once accepted, the training program takes 21 days to complete. Veterans travel to one of the organization’s two campuses in Florida for the duration of the training. Since this is a full immersion program, veterans stay and have their meals at the campus. During this three week period humans and canines learn to work together and bond to each other in order to effectively mitigate the precise needs of the veteran.
PTSD service dogs can be specifically trained to calm their veteran when they are having a flashback or panic attack, use their bodies to prevent their veteran from feeling anxious and uncomfortable when out in society and alert them to sounds and lights that may go unnoticed when they are in the midst of an episode, like a smoke or house alarm.They can remind their veteran to take their medications, provide emotional support that may help lower instances of substance abuse and so much more. Many people, veterans living with PTSD, and otherwise find comfort in the unconditional love a dog provides and have an easier time allowing them to provide that comfort, companionship and assistance than with another person aiding them.
For more information about the K9’s for Warriors organization, visit https://www.k9sforwarriors.org/ .