How Trained Service Dogs Help Veterans with PTSD

Updated: Mar 17

Military combat situations are some of the most traumatic experiences imaginable. As a result of combat, many veterans develop a variety of mental health issues including anxiety and other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with anxiety disorder, signs of PTSD may also include flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and hypervigilance.

When veterans are engaged in combat, they have two main objectives:

  • Executing the combat mission at hand.

  • Ensuring the safety of every soldier around them.

Soldiers trying for months if not an entire year for these types of combat situations. With a very defined task at hand, they’ve been conditioned to function in a state of hypervigilance to ensure the safety of fellow soldiers around them. When they return home from a combat mission overseas, the civilian lifestyle that was once normal is now completely foreign.

There is no longer a combat mission for these soldiers to execute, creating a period of very high stress for these individuals as they reintegrate into society.

What Does PTSD Look Like?

What we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, veterans of World War II or Vietnam may have called “shell-shock.” Modern day science now classifies PTSD as a mental health disorder, plaguing patients with difficult stressors as they recover from trauma.

As a result of the anxiety, hypervigilance, depression, and outbursts of anger caused by PTSD, many veterans won’t leave the house.

“More than 20 veterans with PTSD take their lives each day, resulting in over 7,000 suicides a year.”

Adopting a New Mission Outside of Combat.

Certified service dogs can help combat veterans in a variety of ways. Caring for a service dog often provides the veteran with a new mission. Similar to the veteran’s mission of keeping fellow soldiers safe during combat, maintaining the health and well-being of a service dog provides the veteran with a central focus during reintegration into civilian life.

The mission of a service dog is simple—performing specific tasks to reduce anxiety, anger and frustration that are high-level symptoms of PTSD.

How Do Service Dogs Reduce Stress for Combat Veterans?

The nose of a certified service dog is so receptive that it can sense a rise in the cortizal levels of a combat veteran. This signals to the dog that a veteran is experiencing heightened levels of stress, which service dogs are trained to reduce by pressing paws on pressure points like the chest and thighs.

A service dog can also perform this type of stress-reduction even when a veteran is asleep and clearly experiencing night tremors. Service dogs are trained to lick or nudge a veteran to wake them from this experience.

“Service dogs help ground combat veterans with PTSD in the present, providing security through companionship.”

Along with this ability to mitigate anxiety, trained service dogs can help lead combat veterans out of stressful public situations when the dog picks up physical cues like fidgeting that indicate the veteran is experiencing a flashback or anxiety attack.


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