Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) vary from moderate to extreme or even catastrophic, but many veterans and others suffering from PTSD have discovered that dogs have a unique ability to help them cope. Something innate in the sensibilities of dogs allows the animals to connect with a person who is in the midst of an acute PTSD episode even when family and friends cannot.
Special service dogs that come from organizations where they are specifically trained to act as either guide or emotional companion dogs have been lending their unique abilities to veterans and others suffering from PTSD. In some cases, dogs have also come from rescue situations. Although these dogs may not have been trained since they were puppies for their “job,” many of them are able to become successful emotional companion dogs for their owners who find them an unconditional source of comfort in very difficult times.
PTSD can develop after a person has been through a terrifying ordeal, witnessed or been in an event that was traumatizing or been under prolonged stress where the fear factor was consistent or intense. During such times, the human body has a natural “fight or flight” response, which includes a surge of adrenalin as a coping mechanism for self-preservation.
A person suffering from PTSD may find that “fight or flight” response triggered when they are not actually in physical danger or under a real threat. For those with the condition, just the idea of danger or traumatic memories can be enough to trigger a psychological and physical fear reaction, one that is sometimes so powerful it can cause them to lose emotional and physical control.
Many veterans with PTSD have spoken about how their companion dog can pull them out of an acute episode by uniquely distracting them. These dogs will whine or bark, press their warmth against a leg, nose a hand or simply stay with the veteran as he or she loses their composure, melts down and then recovers only to find their canine companion has never left their side.
New studies using magnetic imaging on the brains of dogs have shown that they have an area of the brain that responds to voices the same way that human brain activity does. These studies have shown that dogs have a unique ability to comprehend the emotional content of human voices. It is no wonder then that these companion dogs are so talented at “reading” the feelings of their owners with PTSD. What makes these dogs so remarkable however, is how they respond under pressure.
Specifically these dogs have helped veterans with PTSD by not only being companions who, perhaps unlike their human counterparts, are non-judgmental and have simple expectations, but by physically assisting their owners. For example, veterans with PTSD often have generalized anxiety in crowds, in confined spaces that are perceived as threatening and they are hyper-vigilant to the point of exhaustion. A companion dog can go in and make sure a room is “clear” of threat, create a buffer between the veteran and other people and stay “on guard” to allow their owner to rest. These dogs are also known to interrupt PTSD nightmares, helping their owners ease back into reality by climbing in bed with them, laying on their chests and even licking their owner’s face and hands until the person fully wakes.
America’s veterans are highly trained in self-control and combat strategies. During their military service, these veterans were willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to protect all Americans and as warriors, stepped up whenever they were needed. For veterans with PTSD, not being able to operate on that same level can be especially frustrating, frightening, physically debilitating and destructive to their quality of life. In addition, with over a decade of war on two fronts, the incidence of PTSD in our returning warriors has dramatically increased and too many of them have turned to suicide believing it was their only option. Some of these warriors have told stories of how their companion dogs have literally saved their lives.
It has long been said that the dog is man’s best friend but veterans and others who suffer from PTSD surely put that statement to the test because their needs likely exceed those of other dog owners. Dogs, with their large hearts, amazing devotion, loyalty and unique abilities to assess their owner’s condition are helping veteran heroes and others with PTSD cope in ways that perhaps only these canine heroes can.
By Alana Marie Burke
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