Article by Emma White
Companion and Service Dogs: A New Way to Help Veterans
Men and women in active service go through a great deal in the course of their work, and the sad fact is, many are permanently altered, either physically or psychologically, by what they experience. For Veterans who return home and resume life outside the military it’s a hard road to travel, and it’s one that can have many obstacles. One of the most profound and the most prevalent is the difficulty of coming to terms with combat experiences, and the feelings of isolation that often result. For some Veterans, their experiences can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, making the adjustment to a “normal” life even more problematic.
The results of a number of major studies show that Veterans have a very high risk of depression and PTSD: 20% of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have either or both of these disorders. For PTSD that’s more than five times the rate at which it occurs in the general population. People with PTSD often have insomnia, experience difficulty concentrating, and are quick to anger. Many live in a state of hyper-vigilance, highly stressed, sensitive to movement and noise, and with a tendency to overreact to even small stimuli. These very distressing symptoms are all things that contribute to the high rates of substance abuse and suicide among Veterans, but they are symptoms that can be treated, with therapy, medication, and the passage of time.
Companion Dogs can Provide Simple but Important Benefits
Service dogs were first trained in the 19th century to help people with visual impairments, and Veterans have been using guide dogs since World War I. Despite the well-documented benefits of dogs as service animals they weren’t trained to help people with other types of disabilities until the 1970s. These days, dogs and other animals are trained to help people with many different physical, neurological, and psychological disabilities, including PTSD. Anyone who has ever owned a pet—particularly one of the warm and furry kind—will already know that that can be an important source of comfort for someone in distress, but dogs can do a great deal more than provide emotional support for Veterans. Small surveys of companion and service dog owners have already shown that they provide many benefits to their owners, not the least of which is an alleviation of the isolation and loneliness that many Veterans feel.
Most organizations that train dogs for Veterans provide either companion dogs, or service dogs, although some supply both. Often they can accommodate preferences in terms of breed and size of the dog someone would prefer, so for someone interested in a companion or service dog, it can be helpful to think about favorite or suitable breeds while making applications.
There are small but significant differences between a companion dog and a service dog—companion dogs are more pets than anything else, although these organizations do pay particular attention to the personalities of the dogs they select for companion animal training. On the other hand, service dogs are specially trained to perform specific tasks, and those tasks depend on the individual needs of their owners. For example, a service dog might be trained to help their owner recover from a panic attack, or remind their owner to take medication. Amazingly, some companion and service dogs can actually detect signs of an impending panic attack, nightmare, or similar crisis in their owners, helping them to prevent the attack or reduce its severity.
Companion and Service Dog Organizations for Veterans
Multiple organizations exist with the specific purpose of locating suitable dogs for Veterans who would like a companion animal, or who would benefit from a service dog. The dogs can provide amazing benefits to Veterans, and because these organizations match applicants with dogs from rescue shelters, the animals themselves receive a wonderful gift too, in the form of a new home and a new life.
K9s for Warriors is located in Ponte Vedra Beach,Florida and trains service dogs for Veterans with PTSD.
Paws for Veterans trains service dogs for Veterans with psychological and physical disabilities.
Pets for Vets is one of the largest organizations providing companion dogs, with more than 20 chapters located all over the country.
Soldier’s Best Friend in Glendale,Arizona trains service and therapeutic dogs for Veterans with PTSD or certain other disabilities.
Service Dogs in the Future
As of 2014 the Department of Veterans Affairs is conducting an ongoing study that looks at how service dogs can help Veterans with PTSD. If the study shows that service dogs provide significant benefits, it’s possible that in the future service dog ownership will be made an allowable Veteran benefit, with subsidies for the costs of ownership and training.
Animal Planet. “Dog Breed Selector.” Accessed May 23, 2014.
Clinical Trials.gov. “Service Dogs for Veterans with PTSD.” Accessed May 23, 2014. Research evaluating service dogs.
Congressional Research Service. “A Guide to US Military Casualty Statistics.” Accessed May 23, 2014. Statistics relating to recent military operations.
History.com. “Assistance Dogs: Learning New Tricks for Centuries.” Accessed May 23, 2014. History of service dogs.
Psychguides. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms, Treatment, and Effects.” Accessed May 23, 2014. Emotional and physical symptoms.
RAND Corporation. “Invisible Wounds of War.” Accessed May 23, 2014. Psychological effects of active service.