For years, highly trained service dogs helped veterans cope with the physical results of war. Guide or helper dogs are a critical part of rehabilitation and daily living for many injured and recovering veterans.

However, until recently, only those proud human companions knew of the psychological power these special dogs bring, something that's beyond aiding in physical activities. Now, there's a recognized and quite tangible effect dogs and pet therapy have on veterans suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Sadly, there are more veterans from our current wars suffering from PTSD and other psychological and brain disorders than those with physical injuries. In some cases, the scars and wounds that one cannot see are even more devastating than those that are visible to the naked eye are.

What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?

According to the National Center for PTSD, a program of the United States Department for Veterans Affairs (VA), PTSD is an "anxiety disorder" resulting from experiencing a "traumatic event."

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving the event
  • Avoiding situations that remind the victim of the initial trauma
  • Feeling "numb"
  • Hyperarousal

How do the dogs help?

There are two types of dogs that are most commonly placed with veterans with PTSD: true companion dogs that do not have any specific training in handling their owners' disability and service dogs that are trained especially for PTSD.

First, studies have shown that by having a canine companion – regardless of whether its highly trained or not – has a significant impact on owners' mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Dogs provide constant love, a sense of calm and companionship, all of which are generally accepted to relieve stress and anxiety.

Now, there are many organizations across the country that specialize in adopting out dogs specifically for veterans with PTSD as companions. These dogs are more pets than medical service dogs.

However, many other groups, including the VA, are training rescued dogs to help their owners cope specifically with PTSD. So, some of these highly trained service dogs may:

  • Spot potential anxiety-ridden situations, similarly to detecting seizures or monitoring subtle health changes, and alert their owner to avoid them
  • Physically get in between the owner and potential flashback hazard
  • Check around corners, allies or other unknown spaces before their owner approaches (eases veterans' fears about blind spots)
  • Provide constant comfort for veterans who are anxious about being in large groups (stores or ball games)

What is the government's position on this?

The VA and the United States Army, spurred on by recent legislation proposed by Senator Al Franken (D-MN), are looking into the positive, yet mounting, evidence.

Essentially, the VA and the Army are figuring out: do the men and women with PTSD benefit from having a specifically trained PTSD service dog over those veterans also with PTSD seeking other forms of treatment?

If the anecdotal evidence is any indication as to what the government will find, then, by all accounts, this type of service dog will become more commonplace.

For more information on programs and organizations placing companion dogs with veterans please visit Paws and Stripes, Pets for Vets and Paws for Purple Hearts.