The Role of Service Dogs in treating PTSD

dog-900229__180Every year approximately 40,000 soldiers return from service physically wounded.  That number is dwarfed by the stream of soldiers that return home with some form of psychological problem that is a direct result of their experiences overseas A recent article out of Saint Leo University published in the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work sets out to explore the value of AAT or Animal-assisted therapy as a facet of the treatment program for sufferers of trauma-induced psychological problems.  


Therapy that makes use of dogs can be traced back to the late 18th century when many mental facilities used dogs to assist patients with cognitive and social disabilities.  Since then, a plethora of research has been conducted to pinpoint the value of canine-assisted therapy.  These studies showed that patients experienced a lower blood pressure, improved cardiopulmonary pressures, a decrease in prescription medicine usage, reduced anxiety and stress along with a host of depression related improvements such as improved self-worth, loneliness, empathy and a sense of well-being and purpose.

Animal Assisted Interactions

The traditional definition of AAA is “activities that involve animals visiting people.  The same activities can be repeated with different people, unlike a therapy program that is tailored to a particular person or medical condition.   AAA provides opportunities for motivation, educational and/or recreational benefits to enhance quality of life.”

But, in 1997, Boris Levinson published his book Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy  and re-defined AAI to incorporate goal-oriented therapeutic intervention.  In this sense, the definition of AAT morphs to “[involving] a health or human service professional who uses an animal as part of his/her job.  Specific goals for each client have been identified by the professional, and progress is measured and recorded.  AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process.  AAT is delivered and/or directed by a health or human service provider working within the scope of his/her profession.  AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.  AAT  is provided in a variety of settings and may be group of individual in nature.  The process is documented and evaluated.”

Many dog owners will have a subliminal understanding of the positive mental benefits that our pets can have on us.  But emerging research is also showing that service dogs can have an even more profound effect on trauma survivors, specifically military veterans.

Helping Heroes

It is becoming well known that veterans returning from their service are increasingly coming home in need of help.  The most recent data shows that ~6,000 vets end their life every year.

The U.S. government recognized the problem in 2011 and passed legislation approving a 300,000 dollar pilot study to research the benefits of pairing service animals with post-service veterans.  Along with this federally funded research, many other studies have shown canine therapy to lessen PTSD symptoms, make other therapy more effective, and serves to combat many trauma-related disorders such as depression, anxiety, etc.

One study reported a decline in PTSD symptoms by as much as 83%.  Another reported fear of medical treatment in children was reduced by 37% when canine therapy was used.

It is important when discussing the benefits of this research to make the distinction between service dogs and therapy dogs.  In 2011, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended to include PTSD  to meet the criteria for service dog assistance.  That same act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.  Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.  Service animals are working animals, not pets.  The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.  Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”


AAA/AAI/AAT have been shown to lower anxiety, increase trust, and combat symptoms of depression.  The act of petting a service animal has been linked to the release of endorphins in the body that result in the participant feeling better, experiencing less pain, and an increase in feelings of well-being.  A study also linked canine therapy to the release of oxytocin or the hormone that enhances trust, cooperation, and love between a parent and their child.

For more information on service dog programs for vets visit:

This Able Veteran