Celebrating Heroes

Service Dogs Help Military Families and Veterans with PTSD

Trauma can be part of the human experience and no more so than for our military and law enforcement officers. From the earliest days of war, soldiers knew that the things they saw and experienced impacted them not only on the battlefield but in the days and years following.

As the mental health of military and law enforcement personnel becomes increasingly important to the overall effectiveness of the force, so does our understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a condition affecting those who have seen or experienced trauma. It was studied as early as the Civil War as nostalgia or soldier’s heart. During World War I, shell shock gained greater attention from the military as a condition that impacted soldiers’ ability to successfully reintegrate into society or their military unit. It was thought to be due to the artillery shells and was treated as a brain injury.

World War II increased the military’s understanding of the condition, which was then called Combat Stress Reaction or battle fatigue. In the 1950s, the American Psychiatric Association included a diagnosis for trauma-related conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although it was later omitted from updated manuals.

The Vietnam War, which is the earliest service group which has data collected regarding PTSD, led to the medical community officially recognizing PTSD as a condition. It was added to medical manuals, along with studies and treatment options.

As expected, post-traumatic stress disorder or disability affects the military at a higher rate than the general population. According to data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs, between 7-8 percent of the general population will experience PTSD. Service members experience PTSD at a rate of 11-30 percent, depending on the era in which they served.

How Dogs are Helping

Shari Duval saw the impact PTSD can have on both an individual and family. Her son, a police K9 officer, served two tours with the Army in Iraq as a bomb dog handler. He returned home suffering from PTSD and found both comfort and healing in his dog. Shari was inspired to research how dogs are able to help those with PTSD and start the non-profit K9s for Warriors to provide the same assistance to others.

Duval and her team pair eligible service dogs with Post-9/11 veterans suffering from PTSD. Most of the dogs are rescued from shelters and provided with training at one of two high-quality kennels. Once paired, both dog and veteran go through 120 hours of training to become a new duo. They both stay at “Camp K9,” a comfortable and state-of-the-art campus serving as their home for three weeks while they learn to operate as a team.

Mental health challenges among the military have gotten a lot of attention from the public and in the media. President Trump signed an executive order earlier this year aimed at providing increased coverage for mental healthcare for recently separated veterans. This is one of the highest-risk groups for suicide, suicide attempts, or suicidal ideations.

K9s For Warriors has helped more than 400 veterans suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disability and other traumas.

The nonprofit also works with other organizations for veteran health and animal wellbeing. Just last month, wounded warriors from the George W. Bush Institute paid a visit to Camp K9 to volunteer and connect with other post-9/11 veterans. The Petco Foundation also awarded a $125,000 grant to K9s for Warriors as part of their Helping Heroes Initiative to support their work with service animals.

Part of the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans, K9s for Warriors is working to establish best practices within the industry and raise awareness for service dogs as therapy for PTSD.

More Than a Pet

Just as the military demands excellence of its service members, so too does K9s for Warriors of its service dogs.

The organization primarily takes rescue dogs from shelters that meet its criteria for suitable canines with the potential to become service animals. Dogs must be between 8 weeks and 2 years old, as well as meet minimum height and weight requirements. This is due to the need for dogs to work within the environment, such as providing space and a sense of security between the veteran and other people.

K9s for Warriors collects information about each dog over the phone, then meets for an in-person evaluation. Trainers look for “personality, sociability, obedience knowledge, food or treat motivation, and train-ability.” A 96-hour, in-house evaluation is also done before selecting dogs for the program. Aggression and severe anxiety in dogs are immediate disqualifiers.

Service dogs are classified as medical equipment and part of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. ADA law requires that service dogs be allowed in areas where other animals may be prohibited, such as planes or restaurants, to provide medical service to their owners.

Until recently, service dogs were primarily used to help those with physical disabilities. Dogs can be trained to alert their owners to environmental conditions, such as navigating obstacles for the blind, helping retrieve items for those with limited mobility, or even signaling dangerous low or high levels of blood sugar for those with diabetes.

Therapy or emotional support dogs are not considered service animals by the ADA, as they “have not been trained to perform a specific job or task” related to a disability. Psychiatric service animals that help those with anxiety do qualify as service animals, however. The important distinction is that these animals are trained to perform specific tasks related to helping an individual overcome limitations posed by their disability.

Dogs as therapy for those with PTSD is an emerging treatment. A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology compared the treatment outcomes for those with a service dog to those still on the waitlist. The study found that “the addition of trained service dogs to usual care may confer clinically meaningful improvements in PTSD symptomology for military members and veterans with PTSD.” It was noted that service dogs did not “appear to be association with a loss of diagnosis” but did improve the life for participants, “including lower depression, higher quality of life, and higher social functioning.”

Other studies are currently underway, including one from the Department of Veterans Affairs and another funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Part of the Family

One of the best parts about K9s for Warriors’ philosophy is the emphasis that they place on involving the veterans in training. They believe that this is “allowing the warrior the opportunity to be part of the solution to their recovery.” For someone suffering from PTSD and the subsequent lack of control that they may be feeling, this empowering philosophy does a lot to help them heal.

Testimonials on the K9s for Warriors website show how each dog has become a part of a veteran’s family. Oftentimes, the connections made through the training program, both human and canine, provide a lifeline and sense of purpose for those suffering from PTSD.

Warrior Travis recently shared these wonderful photos! Seeing our warriors enjoy time with their families and dogs is another #beautiful result of the work we do. (Credit: Facebook/K9s for Warriors)

Rickey, who completed his training program with dog Rocco in October 2016, said that “the fact that they are operated by veterans just like me made training a great experience.” The experience helped him regain closeness with his family. “Simply put this program is a family and they are saving lives!” he continued.

The impact that a service animal can have goes beyond one single person. For Michelle, getting connected with her dog Leia in July 2016 helped her connect with the rest of her family as well. “I want to be able to go to my daughter’s functions, show her support and be the outgoing parent to her that I once was,” she said. “This training with my new service dog partner gives me that support, help and hope that I’ve been needing to continue on with life. K9s for Warriors is truly a life changing program!”

While service dogs as therapy for PTSD is still in the beginning stages of study, the response from veterans served by programs such as K9s for Warriors is overwhelmingly positive.

Katie Begley

Katie Begley is a US Naval Academy graduate and former Surface Warfare Officer. In addition to being a military spouse, she is a freelance writer specializing in travel, education, and parenting subjects. Katie has worked in numerous communications roles for volunteer organizations and professionally for a local parenting magazine.

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