A Veteran in our program: Caleb and his service dog Liberty
It seems too good to be true that a dog could help someone heal from something as horrific as war. Animal assisted therapy isn’t all that new but it’s gaining momentum, especially for our military Veterans suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). There are many therapies to try and help treat PTSD and TBIs, but there’s no “one size fits all” for anyone dealing with these issues. Many Veterans are finding that having a service dog is their answer, and that animal assisted therapy can be immensely helpful, life changing, and life saving.
It’s a daunting statistic that 150 Veterans commit suicide every week, which is enough Veterans to fill a passenger jet liner. It’s vital that we explore all options when trying to help our Veterans heal from the trauma they’ve experienced while serving our country. Dogs can be just that saving grace for many Veterans. So how can having a dog help someone deal with PTSD, TBI, depression, anxiety and more?
Many Veterans suffering from these conditions feel alone upon returning home, and often feel that no one understands them. For some it’s hard to connect with their family and friends. Many fear they are being judged and don’t know how to talk about what they are going through, or don’t want to talk about it. This is why the non-judgmental companionship of a dog can be so helpful. A dog doesn’t judge based on if ones in a wheelchair, if they limp, if they get distracted easily, or if crowds make them anxious. This unconditional love and companionship from an animal has proven to help people suffering from PTSD enter normal social environments again. Often they’re able to reconnect with loved ones, to hug their children, and to have a peaceful nights sleep.
Dogs require a great deal of attention and care. They count on their human companions for almost everything; food, water, shelter, exercise and love. This can help Veterans suffering with PTSD to focus their attention on the day to day needs of their dog, rather than focusing on their own trauma. If the dog is asking to go on his evening walk, this can help break up the overwhelming thoughts about the harsh experiences of war.
For many of the Veterans in our program their dog helps by getting them out of the house. The dog needs to go on a walk, so they start walking together. This becomes their regular routine that they both look forward to and depend on one another for. Veterans, who once found it hard to go out into public, slowly start to see their surroundings as less threatening by positive reinforcement. Their dog can also help if they become overwhelmed in busy public places, by being there for emotional and physical support. Under such circumstances their dog can lead them out of a crowd when they become overwhelmed. Dogs are amazing at picking up on their humans stress and anxiety, and helping them to cope with it.
Many Veterans with PTSD have difficulty sleeping due to nightmares, which can be so bad that they dread even going to sleep. Veterans in our program and in similar programs, have reported that having a dog finally allowed them to fall asleep after years of struggling with sleep deprivation and nightmares. This is because the Veteran knows the dog will bark if they hear a noise, so they don’t have to be on constant alert. It’s a little like bunking with their fellow soldiers who always had their back, but now it’s their dog has their back. If they do have a nightmare, a service dog can be trained to wake a person up, by pawing at them or licking their face. Upon waking up from a nightmare their dog can comfort them by reminding them that they are home, and safe, and not in danger.
Another part of our program that helps Veterans reconnect to civilian life are the training classes we offer. The Veteran and their dog attend weekly training classes where they’re constantly learning new skills. We’ve had Veterans tell us how helpful the classes are to them as well as their dog, by teaching them to be more patient, and giving them confidence to learn new skills.
Whether it’s a panic attack, a nightmare, or a day full of tears, dogs can help our Veterans adjust to a more normal life. They may lick your face, put a paw on the hand covering your eyes, or lay on your chest, to let you know you’re not alone. This companionship and love can do wonders for those dealing with emotional trauma. From sleeping, to reconnecting with loved ones and feeling safe in social settings, service dogs can help Veterans suffering with PTSD, TBI and other emotional and physical scars of war.