Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a very disabling mental health problem. If you suffer from PTSD, you’re terribly familiar with the symptoms: severe anxiety, hypervigilance, nightmares, and flashbacks, and more. While PTSD is most often associated with veterans, it can be triggered by any traumatic event, and non-military PTSD is also common. Service dogs that help people deal with this condition are sometimes referred to as PTSD service dogs.
A PTSD service dog is a psychiatric service dog that is trained to mitigate the symptoms of PTSD for its owner. Sometimes people use the term “PTSD dog” to refer to a dog that provides emotional support but isn’t specially trained, but such dogs are emotional support animals (ESAs), not service dogs. A PTSD service dog meets all the requirements to be considered a service dog under U.S. federal law. That means that you have PTSD that’s severe enough to be disabling, and the dog is specifically trained to serve you in ways that help mitigate the condition.
What Does a PTSD Service Dog Do?
There are many ways that a trained service dog can help its owner who has PTSD deal with symptoms such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, isolation, and anxiety. Some of the most common tasks PTSD dogs are trained to perform include:
- Blocking – the dog positions itself between you and other people, creating a buffer of space that prevents them from coming too close.
- Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) – the dog applies its body weight against you in specific ways, such as lying across your torso, that have a calming, soothing effect when you’re feeling overwhelmed by emotions.
- Who’s There? – if you worry that someone’s in the next room or perhaps have a flashback you’re not sure if a real person is approaching, a service dog given this command will indicate if a person is present but remain neutral if it’s just your imagination.
- Interrupting Nightmares – if you suffer from nightmares or night terrors, the dog can be trained to wake you up when you display signs of a nightmare in progress, such as thrashing about in bed.
- Anxiety & Panic Interruption – the dog can be trained to pick up on the signals you give off as you become increasingly anxious or are about to have a panic attack. On noting the signs, the dog interrupts the process by pawing, bringing a toy for play, or otherwise changing your focus.
A PTSD service dog can also be trained to perform any task or work that other service dogs might do, for example, picking up items off the floor, retrieving medication, or fetching someone when you need help. See our Giant List of Service Dog Tasks for even more examples.
Where do PTSD Service Dogs Come From?
Service dogs trained specifically to help people with PTSD sometimes come from programs that serve veterans. These programs are often completely free, though there is usually a waiting list. An internet search is the best place to find them.
Non-veterans with PTSD can have a much tougher time finding a program. Some service dog programs will accommodate anyone who demonstrates need, as long as you are able to pay for the dog, which can cost $15,000 or more.
Due to the difficulty and expense of obtaining a PTSD service dog from a program, some people choose to train a dog themselves. This is no small undertaking, but it can be done. The hardest part, perhaps, is finding a candidate that’s suitable. A candidate must have very particular temperament and behavioral traits or it’s likely it won’t complete training successfully. It can also be very difficult out to reliably carry out training, particularly public access training, when you’re being beaten down by PTSD symptoms. However, many people find ways to overcome these hurdles and successfully self-train a PTSD service dog.
Warm & Furry Add-Ons
Besides performing trained tasks and work that directly mitigate symptoms, a service dog can help someone with PTSD reconnect with the world in other ways. For example, the need to get out of the house to walk and exercise your dog can help reduce isolation. A furry snuggle when you’re suffering from insomnia can make the night seem much shorter and help you get the rest you need. Having your dog at your side all the time can make it possible to go out in the world and face tasks that previously felt overwhelming to do alone.
There’s no doubt that a PTSD service dog has the potential to be life changing. Nonetheless, a service dog isn’t a good solution in every case. Be sure to read our Top 22 Things to Know Before Getting a Service Dog if you’re considering making the leap. Becoming part of a PTSD service dog team may not be the best move, or might be exactly what you need to break free from the quicksand of PTSD.