Mental health service dog and owner with PTSD working outdoors.

A Spotlight on Service Dogs: Can They Help You Manage PTSD?

If you’re wondering whether a service dog may help with your PTSD, it’s important to take a close look at the research, consider the benefits and challenges of owning a dog and what resources are available to help.

We’ve all heard the expression ‘four-legged friend’ in reference to dogs. People who have dogs share stories about their companionship, loyalty and deep connection to their owners.

It turns out that there may be even more that dogs can provide than friendship. Some studies now show that service dogs can have a big impact on people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you’re wondering whether a service dog may help with your PTSD, it’s important to take a close look at the research, consider the benefits and challenges of owning a dog and what resources are available to help.

What Is a Service Dog?

Mental health service dog working outdoors.All dogs can provide companionship and love to their owners, but according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), service dogs are defined differently.

Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks for a person who has a disability. For example, service dogs can pick things up, guide a person with vision problems or help someone who falls easily. To be a service dog, a dog must go through extensive training.

Service dogs are allowed in most public places the handler goes because the handler depends on the service dog’s help.

Can a Service Dog Help with PTSD?

Many Veterans suffer from PTSD and their PTSD symptoms can be triggered by a wide range of things, such as being in crowded places, going into unknown areas, being approached from behind, and more. Veterans who live with PTSD may also suffer panic attacks, nightmares and flashbacks.

According to research from the American Psychiatric Association, service dogs can be trained to perform many tasks that can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD by providing a sense of safety and security. This includes tasks such as:

  • Alerting the handler when someone is approaching from behind
  • Alerting the handler when it’s time to take medication
  • Alerting a family member or bystander if the handler is in distress
  • Causing a distraction or interruption if the handler is having a flashback, nightmare or panic attack, or is experiencing other depression or anxiety symptoms
  • Creating a barrier between the handler and other people in a crowded area
  • Going into a house ahead of the handler to provide reassurance that it’s safe to enter
  • Guiding a handler to an exit or away from a crowded place
  • Initiating conversation, helping the handler to connect or reconnect with family and friends

What Does the Research Say?

Getting a service dog to help you manage your PTSD is a big decision, so it’s important to understand what different studies and research show about how effective it is.

The National Library of Medicine released a study that found Veterans and first aid responders with PTSD who had a service dog showed significantly less PTSD-related symptoms, better sleep quality and better well-being than those without a dog or those with a companion dog only. The most compelling evidence was in the form of self-reports by those who have a service dog. They indicated service dogs helped them reclaim control over their lives, enabled them to reconnect with society and improve their quality of life.

However, according to VA, there is not enough research yet to know if dogs help treat PTSD and its symptoms. Instead, VA recommends evidence-based therapies and medication for treating PTSD. VA believes dogs can help people deal with certain aspects of living with PTSD but are not a substitute for effective, proven PTSD treatment. For example, if your dog keeps strangers from coming too close to you, you may not learn that you can handle the situation without the dog and recover on your own.

To better understand the impact service dogs may have as a treatment for PTSD, VA is conducting a five-year pilot program through the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act to provide canine training to eligible Veterans diagnosed with PTSD as an element of a complementary and integrative health program. Visit Implementation of the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act for more information on the PAWS pilot program, its five locations and its timeline.

What Should I Consider Before Owning a Dog?

If you’re considering a service dog or any kind of dog for support, it’s important to consider whether you’re ready for the responsibility. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Think about what dog ownership really means. All pets, whether they’re service dogs or not, need to be taken care of. This takes time, energy and financial resources. Do you have the time to provide the right amount of attention and care? Do you have enough additional income to feed the pet and pay for veterinarian expenses? Are you in the right place emotionally and physically to care for an animal?
  • Talk the decision over with someone you trust. Before you bring a dog into your home, discuss it with someone you trust, such as a friend, family member or your health care provider. Ask them for honest answers about whether you’re ready for pet ownership.
  • Do your research. Before you get a pet, especially a service dog that must be trained, do your research. Ask trainers or service dog organizations for references, credentials or anything else you’re interested in. Be sure they can answer your questions and are upfront about costs, time commitments, success rates, and more.
  • Consider your lifestyle. Not everyone has a lifestyle that will support owning a dog. Do you have the space to fit everything your pet may need? Do you have a landlord that you would need to talk to first? Do you travel for work and if so, do you have someone to care for your pet? Think through the demands of your lifestyle before considering pet ownership.

What Other Options Are There?

 A service dog requires a tremendous amount of expert training and behavior modification work, as well as a dog with the right temperament and personality for the job.

Many people opt to get a dog that is considered an emotional support dog or a therapy dog instead. This is a dog that helps their owner feel better by providing friendship and companionship. These dogs do not need special training, but can still provide their owners with several benefits, including:

  • Boosting your mood
  • Reducing your stress levels
  • Providing emotional support, attention and comfort
  • Providing companionship
  • Providing a good reason to get out of the house, spend time outdoors and meet new people

What Resources Are Available?

If you’re considering a service dog or an emotional support dog, for PTSD or any other reason, do your research and make sure pet ownership is right for you.

Tell us what you think.

* Required form fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.