Scott Smith’s recent article on the K9s for Warriors program, entitled K9s for Warriors – Because Together We Stand, brings to light the increasingly prevalent issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) within our veteran community. The program seeks to pair rescued shelter dogs with veterans, after being specially trained as service animals. The intensive training helps the animals to minimize veterans’ PTSD symptoms and aid in the management of public life.
As stated in our textbook, PTSD can be roughly defined as symptoms of distress (such as intrusive memories, insomnia, and agitation) following a traumatic event, that persist one month or longer and disrupt daily life. As the number of veterans who suffer from PTSD, mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) continues to rise, doctors and psychologists are looking for new ways to help treat and manage symptoms.
For many, traditional methods such as talk-therapy and medications do little to relieve the constant stressors of day to day life. As Smith’s article states, the founder of K9s for Warriors, Shari Duval, noticed a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms after her son was given a service dog, which led her to create the program with hopes of helping other veterans. The addition of a psychiatric service dog to PTSD sufferers’ lives has been proven to show a dramatic decrease in symptoms. This brings to question what exactly it is about service dogs that alleviates the pain and stress of our returning veterans.
A multitude of studies of the brain of PTSD victims have proven to show a reduction in volume in the hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex as well as overactivity in the amygdala. Medications prescribed to veterans attempt to tackle the biological components of PTSD, however this frequently is not enough. The presence of a service dog clearly cannot change the biological components of the mental disorders, like prescription medications; however, their presence can help to relieve the perceived pain and stress, as well as aid in the development of coping mechanisms.
Many veterans who struggle with PTSD describe their experience as being in a constant state of alert, they constantly are on edge. A service dog is trained in a variety of tasks, such as reminding their human companion to take medications, creating space in crowded areas, and sitting backwards to watch a veteran’s back. In this way, the dogs help reduce the environmental stressors within a veteran’s day to day life.
According to veterans sourced in Scott Smith’s article, the dogs also give the veterans a sense of purpose and routine. They are no longer fighting through the pain simply for themselves, they have the responsibility of their service animal as well. This regular routine provides something steady for PTSD sufferers to focus on, rather than the trauma at the source of their disorder.
Whether they are tasked with interrupting intrusive memories, waking a veteran during a nightmare, or simply providing a welcome distraction from the stressors of daily life, psychiatric service dogs have proven to provide relief for PTSD victims. As the number of veterans suffering from this disorder continues to rise, further forms of treatment and symptom management are necessary, and service dogs seem to be the solution.