For a combat veteran with PTSD a therapy dog can be more than just a best friend!

A person reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch with a trained therapist sitting a short distance away, taking notes, is one of the enduring images of someone getting help with a serious mental disorder, like, say, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

We wouldn’t think that a combat veteran reclining on a sofa at home with a dog sitting, or even sleeping, nearby is getting “treatment” for devastation caused by PTSD. But that is exactly what is happening says Gordon Sumner of Veterans Moving Forward, Inc (who operates a program specifically designed to provide veterans with trained and certified therapy dogs).

Probably from early in our human journey we’ve known that dogs give the comforts of unconditional love and loyalty. More systematic recent research shows that the companionship of pets

  • Improve mood, reduce depression
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Lower the risk of a heart attack
  • Motivate and encourage exercise
  • Reduce and prevent stress
  • Help to prevent disease
  • Reduce, possibly eliminate medications

So says The Society for Companion Animal Studies.  That should be enough to highly recommend Dr. Fido, but Dr. Sumner has more recommendations that relate to the over 300,000 military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD.  Those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have higher rates than other veterans.  Suicides among U.S troops average one a day. Veterans now account for about 20% of all suicides. Various levels of depression are commonplace.

According to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems PTSD can be brought on by “exposure to a stressful event or situation (either short or long lasting) of exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature, which is likely to cause pervasive distress in almost anyone.” Sounds like Iraq and Afghanistan!

We’ve all heard so much about PTSD that the initials do not tell of symptoms that are startling and saddening:

  • Persistent remembering or "reliving" the stressor by intrusive flash backs, vivid memories, recurring dreams, or by experiencing distress when exposed to circumstances resembling or associated with the stressor.
  • difficulty in falling or staying asleep;
  • irritability or outbursts of anger;
  • difficulty in concentrating;
  • hyper-vigilance;
  • exaggerated startle response

Using a trained therapist is always a good idea, but there are some things that “a dog can do that therapists cannot do nearly so well, like always be there,” Dr. Sumner says. If a scientific explanation is needed for another advantage that a dog has, then a sense of smell might explain.  “Experts speculate that people give off tell-tale scents under certain physical or psychological conditions that only dogs can detect, says Melinda Beck in a Wall Street Journal Article.

 “That acute sense of smell also enables specially trained service dogs to recognize when seizures, diabetic comas or heart attacks are imminent in humans. Some dogs can even detect the presence of cancer cells in lab specimens—much like detecting traces of contraband or explosives in luggage. “

But I prefer a more spiritual explanation. Humans share spiritual connections to the rest of creation, intuitive connections, we might say, for the benefit of those who have not ventured out as far as I have into magical (spiritual) thinking.

Dogs are, in some ways, just more sensitive to human emotions, more sensitive to the human spirit, than other humans are.  Studies show that human interactions with a dog can decrease cortisol, the stress hormone and increase prolactin and oxytocin, the hormones that govern nurturing and security, as well as serotonin and norepinephrine, the neurotransmitters that lifts a person’s mood.

A therapy dog can increase a PTSD combat veteran’s:

  • sense of self esteem from being capable and responsible for the welfare of another living being
  • peace when alone in the civilian world where others do not share the veteran’s intrusive history
  • self assurance when out in public.
  • feeling of being unconditionally love and having undying loyalty
  • sense of being watched over when the veteran is sleeping or relaxing

Karen D. Jeffries, Commander, US Navy, Retired, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Veterans Moving Forward, Inc. says that currently, the service dog industry estimates it costs between $35,000–$50,000 to raise, train, and place an assistance dog.

VMF is holding a fundraising reception and dinner at 6 PM on 11 November, Veterans Day, at the Hotel Monaco in Old Town Alexandria, VA, not far from where I am.  I think I’ll run (drive actually) down to see if some therapy dogs show up at their own party.

Sumner joked that a properly trained dog can do almost anything for a veteran, including going to the refrigerator and getting a beer.  I’m a veteran. If a dog goes to the refrigerator, gets me a beer, and opens it. . .wow!

George Davis, as creative director of Quest Digital Worldwide, has assembled a world-wide team of volunteers and Strategic Partners to build an interactive, group-authored, Internet novel-as-a-game-for-good. The game-novel, The Bay is Dying, is about a global struggle to save the environment

About the Author

George Davis

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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