How can service dogs help veterans?

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FILE – In this Dec. 4, 2018 file photo, Sully, former President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, pays his respect to President Bush as he lies in state at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The 2-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, joined Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s dog program to help wounded veterans. Sully offered his paw as he was administered an oath streamed on Facebook to “support, comfort and cheer warriors and their families.” (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

INDIANAPOLIS — PTSD isn’t exclusive to screaming flashbacks and waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares. It isn’t always the panic attacks, survivor’s guilt and suicide depicted in movies.

Sometimes it’s looking into the mirror, zoning out, forgetting that you’re there. Sometimes it’s a persisting numbness, dwindling your motivation and joy that you used to always have in your hobbies and relationships. Sometimes it overlaps in symptoms of depression, ranging from trouble sleeping and loss of appetite to mood swings and an everpresent feeling of shame.

That’s if you’re lucky. That’s if it’s not severe.

PTSD in Veterans

Nearly 380,690 veterans live in Indiana as of July 1, 2019, with that number declining since 2010.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs found that between 11-20 percent of veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year. They also found 12 percent of veterans have PTSD from the Gulf War, and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

Studies found that veterans now account for 20 percent of all suicides within the U.S., with those in the 18-24 age range being four times as likely to commit suicide than nonveterans of the same age. On average, that’s 18 to 22 veterans taking their own lives every single day.

PTSD can be treated through a number of different means: most commonly through medication and therapy. However, many veterans seek help from a good friend — Man’s Best Friend, specifically.

How Do Service Dogs Help?

In August, the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act was signed into law, which provides service dogs and canine training to veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

Purdue University found that the human-animal bond can lead to lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease and lowered feelings of anxiety, pain and loneliness. Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) is catered to the individual’s particular goals and needs, all while providing unique benefits, safety and support to those with PTSD.

Service dogs trained in PTSD are taught to sense when an individual is experiencing a heightened state of stress that can lead to a panic attack. In response, the animal may nudge and/or lick their owner, causing them to shift their focus out of their panicked state and instead concentrate on the dog, take deep breaths and refocus on the present.

Purdue’s Maggie O’Haire, an associate professor of human-animal interaction, continuously studies how service dogs benefit those with PTSD. She found that symptoms of PTSD were lower among war veterans with service dogs, and they tend to feel less anger, less anxiety and experience better sleep.

She worked on her study with the help of K9s for Warriors, an organization that helps provide service dogs to veterans who suffer from PTSD. Another organization like this is Dogs Helping Heroes.

Service dogs are not a cure for PTSD, but for many veterans, they make the symptoms of PTSD easier to manage.

What Should I Know About Service Dogs?

As Veteran’s Day draws near, many places are celebrating and showing support in both public and private settings. In many of these celebrations, veterans will likely bring their service animals.

Erin Askeland, a certified professional dog trainer and canine behavior consultant with Camp Bow Wow, noted a few things for people to keep in mind when seeing a service animal in public.

  • Service dogs are not required to have any license or specific certification. Many service animals wear special collars or harnesses already stating that they are on duty and have the required training that they need for their human, but there isn’t any particular ID required.
  • It takes years of training before a service dog is ready to take on their role. The dog is trained to meet their owner’s specific needs through task-based work. They are meant to help their owner navigate life with independence, and they are not given to just anybody.
  • Service dogs should not be treated as a pet. Service dogs are working animals. They are required to be intelligent, eager to work, focused on their job, remain calm and have problem-solving skils. They must be well-behaved and comfortable in all types of situations and in all kinds of public spaces. Because of this, one should not walk up and immediately try to play with or pet a service animal without permission. You should also never offer food to a service dog without permission, either.
  • If the dog approaches you unattended, that may be a sign the owner needs help. Apart from PTSD, service animals can also be used to assist those with blindness, in wheelchairs or have epilepsy. They are not mutually exclusive in a veteran sometimes, so if a dog approaches you, follow it back to the owner — because they may need help right away.

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