Disrupting Anxiety: The Most Vital Task For PTSD Service Dogs

Service Dogs Benefit Veterans with PTSD
By Abbey Nickel, August 2020
service dogs support veterans with ptsd

Research suggests that psychiatric service dogs may be an effective complementary treatment option for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s been found that disrupting episodes of anxiety ranks among the most important tasks a service dog can provide to veterans with PTSD, research finds.

Science has shown that service dogs can benefit some veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But the exact role they play in the day-to-day lives of veterans—and the helpfulness of the tasks they perform—is less clear.

The new study explores what trained tasks service dogs perform the most often and which ones are the most helpful to veterans with PTSD. The study found that the task of disrupting episodes of anxiety ranked among the most important and most often used.

“There has been some debate on what kind of training PTSD service dogs need to be effective and how their assistance may be different than what a pet dog can provide,” says Kerri Rodriguez, a human-animal interaction graduate student at Purdue University and a lead author of the study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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“This study suggests that veterans are, in fact, using and benefiting from the specific trained tasks, which sets these dogs apart from pet dogs or emotional support dogs.”

Keeping Anxiety in Check

K9s For Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of Service Dogs to military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury and/or Military Sexual Trauma based in Florida helped support this study. The study was conducted in preparation for an ongoing large-scale clinical trial studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time.

The findings show, on average, the dog’s training to both alert the veteran to any increasing anxiety and provide physical contact during anxiety episodes is the most important and the most often used in a typical day. Veterans with a service dog also rated all of the service dog’s trained tasks as “moderately” to “quite a bit” important for their PTSD.

Some trained tasks include picking up on cues veterans display when experiencing distress or anxiety and consequently nudging, pawing, or licking them to encourage the veteran to focus on the dog. Trainers also teach the service dogs to notice when veterans experience anxiety at night and will actively wake the person up from nightmares.

The dogs also learn to perform tasks in public—such as looking the opposite way in a crowded room or store to provide a sense of security for the veteran.

Veterans use trained service dog tasks an average 3.16 times per day, with individual tasks ranging from an average of 1.36 to 5.05 times per day.

Companionship and Happiness

Previous research stressed the importance of the bond between a service dog and the veteran when considering untrained behaviors. Although veterans report all trained tasks to be important for their PTSD, those with a service dog actually rated the importance of untrained behaviors higher than the importance of trained tasks.

This suggests some therapeutic aspects of the service dog’s companionship help just as much, if not more, than the dog’s trained tasks, Rodriguez says. “These service dogs offer valuable companionship, provide joy and happiness, and add structure and routine to veterans’ lives that are likely very important for veterans’ PTSD.”

The study surveyed 216 veterans from K9s For Warriors, including 134 with a service dog and 82 on the waitlist. The study complements a previous study published last year that focused specifically on the service dogs’ training, behavior, and the human-animal bond.

While veterans reported service dogs help cope with a number of specific PTSD symptoms such as having nightmares, experiencing flashbacks, or being hyperaware in public, they did not help in other areas, such as amnesia and risk-taking.

“Both this research, as well as other related studies on PTSD service dogs, suggest that service dogs are not a standalone cure for PTSD,” says Maggie O’Haire, associate professor of human-animal interaction. “Rather, there appear to be specific areas of veterans’ lives that a PTSD service dog can help as a complementary intervention to other evidence-based treatments for PTSD.”

Veterans on the waitlist to receive a service dog expected the service dog’s trained tasks to be more important for their PTSD and used more frequently on a daily basis than what veterans who already had a service dog reported.

“Veterans on the waitlist may have higher expectations for a future PTSD service dog because of feelings of hope and excitement, which may not necessarily be a bad thing,” Rodriguez says. “However, it is important for mental health professionals to encourage realistic expectations to veterans who are considering getting a PTSD service dog of their own.”

Merrick Pet Care, Newman’s Own Foundation, and the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine supported the work.

Image by MichaelDarby1976

Abbey Nickel is a writer for Purdue University, a top public research institution developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges.