Can Dogs Help People With PTSD?

While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves people who experienced traumatic events in the past, it doesn’t just include combat veterans who’ve gone to war. Anyone can experience PTSD, regardless of age, nationality, religion, and culture.

People who are affected by PTSD can be overcome with anger, fear, or sadness. Flashbacks and nightmares are common, so they need all the emotional support they can get.

 

How Do Dogs (and pets in general) Help People with PTSD?

Many find their emotional anchor in the sweet persona of dogs.  Generally, the companionship of a dog helps brighten our mood and lift up our spirits. As such, they could reduce our stress, help take our mind off of negative thoughts, and just really bring out positive feelings.

So, to dig deeper into the matter, we’ve asked some people questions about how dogs help them cope with PTSD. Read on to find out what they have to say.

Jake Gear

Jake suffers from multitude of symptoms from PTSD, but his dog, Agnes, always helps him to calm down.

From my personal experience, the emotional benefits of having my dog while dealing with PTSD is that she's always there with unconditional, unwavering pure love and joy.

She is also always ready for snuggle and is always excited to see me. Her joy helps bring me up.

I suffer from a multitude of symptoms of PTSD. There are times when my anxiety, mood and depression get so bad, to the point of not being able to deal with it.

My girl can recognize if I'm not doing well, and she comes to me to be held.

Many times I've cried, holding my sweet Agnes, and her breathing, heart beat and warmth help calm me down—she's like a security blanket.

I don't know whether you need a service dog, in particular. Any animal that bring a person joy, comfort and a calming resolve would be great!

But, who doesn't love a dog? I also think horses are a good outlet, mine always brought me some comfort.

I would absolutely recommend getting a service dog or pet to someone suffering with PTSD.

I believe they are more intuitive then people give them credit for.

They also listen to what you have to say, they don't offer up any uneducated opinions or suggestions, they just give you love and support.

There are several organizations who provide service dogs. PAALS, Pawsetivity Service Dogs and Service Dogs for America, just to name a few.

Susan Mowrey

Susan's PTSD was so bad that she didn't even want to be near people. Her dog, Athena, doesn't leave her for a moment and always make sure to keep her distracted and happy.

For me…it got me out of my house again. My PTSD was so bad that I didn’t want to be anywhere near people. So I guess, Athena made me feel safe and secure.

She would also distract me whenever we were in public places and I start to expect something bad to happen.

She would lick my arm or huff at me to get my attention. She also keeps a distance between me and anyone she doesn’t know.

Whenever I'm having my PTSD meltdowns and I couldn’t get out of bed, or whenever I just felt like I couldn’t breathe, Athena would lay across me and lick my hands or my face. She  would just let me pet her for hours on end.

I think having a service dog is very different from having a regular pet. I happened to have two cats and another dog, who are not fazed at all whenever I'm having my PTSD moments.

Yes I would definitely suggest having a PTSD dog. My dog was constantly with me—even if it meant sitting in the bathroom while I took a shower.

She never left my side and if I was really, really bad she would find another human.

Unfortunately the only place I know to get a PTSD dog is through the military.

My dog was only trained in obedience schools, but friend of mine who has a PTSD dog realized that Athena was doing everything that his $50,000 dog does.

So he helped us and gave us a few more pointers and she’s been with me ever since.

Thanks to her I am back to work after a year.

Lynn Rankin-Guenther

Lynn has a dog that always supports her when she's crying or having a panic attack, and a cat that does the same for her son.

Dogs give emotional comfort and unconditional love but certain ones are especially helpful for those with PTSD.

My dog gives comfort whenever I cry or have a panic attack. She follows me, sits by my feet and will even climb on top of me if I’m sitting down. If she knows I’m very upset or mad, she’ll try to get me outside to go for a walk. It’s like she knows that walking and nature calm me.

Most pets will help with PTSD. I have a dog that helps me considerably. My son has a cat that works for him. His cat will coming running from wherever he is just to comfort my son when he’s crying or having a panic attack. The cat will sit on his chest and rub his head against my son. The cat will “kiss” him also. His cat will try to play with my son when my son is angry, almost like he’s trying to distract him.

I highly recommend a service pet from those suffering from PTSD. Just knowing someone or a pet is there for you when you need them helps. Knowing that your pet will always love you is immeasurable. Knowing you’re not alone at your time of need is of great comfort.

I am not sure which organizations provide service dogs. I do think these pets should be free and covered by insurance.

Brandi

Brandi and her daughter suffer from PTSD, and they both found comfort from their pet husky.

The emotional benefits of having a dog is tremendous with PTSD. A dog is pure love—they love you regardless of how you feel about yourself. Dogs will comfort you when you're having a PTSD flashback or anxiety attack. They have a very calming effect with their kisses and their warm furry bodies.

Yes, both my daughter and I have PTSD and my husky always knows when we're on the edge of a flashback. Many times he has helped snap me out of a flashback by pushing himself in between my arms and my face and he will kiss me.

I do think a lot of people with PTSD would benefit from having a dog (be it a service dog or not).

I definitely would recommend people with PTSD to get a service dog or pet dog because they can provide companionship without restrictions.

Unfortunately I don't know of any specific programs that provide service dogs to people with PTSD.

Rose

Rose's husband retired in 2014 after 22 years of military service. He was deployed 8 times during his last ten years, and Rose noticed changes in his demeanor after each deployment. Rose believes she is suffering from un-diagnosed PTSD as well. The family adopted 2 cats that helped them go through the tough situation.

I believe people often connect to animals because they love unconditionally and without judgment. Those struggling with PTSD often hesitate to reach out for help due to fear of being judged.

My husband retired in 2014 after 22 years of military service. He was deployed eight times during his last ten years.

With each deployment, I noticed his demeanor change. His gradually withdrew from his family. He was quiet and quick to anger. He stopped reaching for affection and comfort. The kids often asked me “Why is dad mad all the time?”

Cats have different personalities. Some are often said to be ‘dog like'.

My husband often talked of getting a dog but, our son is autistic and has a fear of dogs.

So we adopted two cats in 2008. Charlie was 5 months old. The older female is an alpha and often chased and bullied Charlie, and I think that's why my husband started showing him more attention.

He noticed that Charlie could learn commands. He would come when called, and sit for treats. Sometimes he would even meow when prompted.

Charlie favored my husband and spent more and more time with him. My husband never liked the cats to sit on him but, Charlie won him over

I absolutely think a service pet is beneficial to people with PTSD. Animals are a calming presence that are known to be able detect when a person is ill or stressed.

Animals respond to emotions. They want nothing more than food, affection, and a safe environment, which are the basic needs that someone with PTSD needs before they can begin to heal.

I would absolutely recommend a service animal for a person with PTSD. The symptoms of PTSD impact not only the individual, but their family and close friends, too. 

A bond with a service animal allows a person with PTSD to feel relaxation and acceptance. This, in turn, can enable them to participate in therapy and accept help from healthcare providers.

This is how things worked for my husband. After developing a bond with our cat, he began attending therapy weekly. His mood and health are greatly improving.

I'm sorry, I do not currently know of specific organizations that provide service animals.

I've struggled with depression and what I believe to be undiagnosed PTSD. During the past year, I've been in a depressive state. Both of our cats stayed at my side.

Our female cat, Eva, is mine and has always been like velcro that sticks to me. Charlie was always aloof, which is why it was surprising to see him suddenly following and cuddling with my husband.

Charlie was our daughter's cat. She joined the Navy and moved away in 2018. On December 27th 2019, Charlie suddenly died of an aneurysm. He was 12.

My husband was devastated. The last time I saw him cry was when his father passed away in 2001.

Since Charlie's death, my cat Eva, now follows my husband and does her best to cuddle him. She's even started sitting for treats (which she refused to do before).

PTSD has been a dark cloud over our family for many years. Charlie's affection, allowed us a break in the storm.

Keith Boehner

Keith is a retired police officer from Brockton MA, a Gulf War Vet, and was a volunteer first responder in the weeks after the Sept 11 attacks in New York at Ground zero. He was diagnosed with Complex PTSD.

I believe the emotional benefit of having a dog for a person who is diagnosed with PTSD is extremely beneficial.

Other than being emotionally supportive just by their presence, they're intuitive of our emotional state.

When a dog responds to these emotional states, it can be very comforting. They offer a kind of comfort are you can't get from people.

With people, you sometimes feel like you have to explain why you have gone into a hyper-vigilant state or a panic attack, or what image is repeatedly playing through your mind. You don't have to do that with a dog. You can just put your arm around his neck and be comforted.

My dog has responded to my agitated emotional states and helped calm me down. He always brings me back to reality when I really need it.

I also suffer from tachycardia. My resting heart beat is around 130 beats per minute. When it becomes elevated, like over 140 150 beats per minute, my dog becomes acutely aware and will start pawing at me. This gets me to sit down and pet her, which in turn lowers my heart rate.

Not sure if dogs need to be trained for this because she's just old English bulldog who has learned to be my best medicine.

In my opinion, our well-being is so inherently important to dogs. However, it may also have to do with whether the person is a dog person and develops that kind of relationship with a dog.

Keith's dog

I'm not sure about this question because I think that would really vary from person to person and dog to dog.

Say, a person is not really a dog person. Getting a puppy in training and developing a relationship with it could be quite stressful.

However, purchasing a trained adult service dog might be a better route for some people. This is definitely a case-to-case issue.

I absolutely would recommend getting a service dog or a dog, in general.

The problem with having a dog who is not trained but behaves as a service animal to someone with mental illness, is that that dog may not be welcomed in public areas, which are often when people with PTSD may be triggered.

Unfortunately, you can't just blanket a dog as a service animal if it hasn't been trained properly to react in public.

Even if I would like to take my dog everywhere I go, it's just not possible.

I believe there was a program with the VA comeuppance. I'm not sure if it's ongoing, as I was told that it was not on going at the Brockton VA.

I also looked into service dogs from private companies and it seemed quite complicated. There are not a lot of options for PTSD related service dogs, too.

Although, it was a year ago when I was last looked into these things for a friend who's also diagnosed with PTSD.

Lynae

Lynae worked for 26 years in ambulances. She was married for 22 years until she finally was able to break free from an extremely abusive relationship with her ex-husband.

On emotional benefits, let me start with my trauma. 

I worked 26 years in the ambulances. I saw, heard, smelled and touched things I cant unsee, unhear, untouch or unsmell.

I've been assaulted with knives, and had 1 gun put to my head with the trigger pulled. I was married for 22 years to a guy who was not there mentally and physically. He was emotionally, financially and sexually abusive, until divorce time.

Then he became extremely abusive and reported me for things I never did. I became homeless and he used it against me in court so he can take my kids and my other dog, Truffles.

For the last 5 years, I suffered tremendous loss, one after another with exception to reinventing myself and my identity. I lost a great portion if who I was in all of this.

The new pup, Bandit, is now 19 months old. He has not just given me a sense of purpose, but also a sense of who I am.

He taught me how to feel love and also fear, if something happens to him. He has taught me that I can keep going and not be afraid to love again.

He is a funny dog, there are so many things he does that make me laugh. He is a quirky little man with a great big personality. He has allowed me into his world, wherein we have created an amazing bond between us.

This has a lot to do with how I am training him, and how he trains me (lol!).  He depends on me to take care of him mentally, physically, nutritionally and medically. He has given me a sense of purpose.

I think the emotional benefits we both get are indescribable. He also doesn't let me stay down. I've had some bad days, physically and mentally.

He depends on my being able to get up, make him his scrambled eggs with ham and cheese every morning. He also depends on my being able to give him his exercise, play, training and cuddle time.

I cry when I have to leave him behind even if it's just for an hour. I am very attached to him.

My dog, and my PTSD. My example is even on a down day, he still needs me. He doesn't let me stay in bed long enough to ponder any grief or sadness.

When I feel upset or angry, he knows and comes to me licking my face, nuzzling me and looking for love. He just knows when people, not just me are having bad days.

He will if we are out and he detects someone is upset either go and lay under their feet, in front of them or will kiss them.

I think that depends on the person. Not all people like dogs.

But, I would say that people with PTSD can definitely be helped with dogs because of the love, joy and the dependency factor.

When PTSD impacts people, the limbic system changes its neurochemical all to the negative. I think that love is always a strong positive emotion that somehow manages to rise above the negative emotions. Dogs give us hope and faith, something humanity lost a long time ago.

Yes, I would recommend a service dog and not an emotional support dog.

Both are great, BUT, emotional support dogs have limited places they can go, service dogs do not. PTSD triggers can occur at any time, anyplace, and without any warning. So they should be allowed in any place their handler should go as well.

However, I think there should be special training with the handler if they need it. Not ever handler knows how to train a dog. Also, there could be a system created that teams experienced dog handlers with inexperienced dog handler both should have PTSD, so that they can have a mutual understanding.

I also think it's important to know that not all PTSD looks the same. You should not match a civilian PTSD sufferer with an emergency responder or other non-civilan responders. Civilians do not understand EMS, fire, police, department if corrections or military work.

This wouldn't create the bond between dog handler to dog handler, instead could increase PTSD symptoms or triggers. Its a trust of inner circle thing that most people dont understand.

I do not know of any “services” that help with PTSD dogs, training or registration. In fact this appears to be very elusive at best.

I also think this could vary from state to state. I'm in Massachusetts, and I don't know of any other than maybe the military. If you have any further questions, I would love to be able to help.

By the way, if I don't take my dog with me everywhere I go, I also worry about him and I'm so concerned if he is ok.

On a last note, people with PTSD should not have to label their dogs as PTSD dogs. This gives away a medical condition to the already strong opinionated public that already stigmatizes people with psychological differences. It should just say service dog.

No one should ever be forced to identify in public why they have a service dog. They should always be allowed to feel safe. After all, isn't safety the root of all PTSD problems? Why should we add to it?

Conclusion

These are real experiences from real people. Whether you or someone you know has PTSD symptoms, these stories provide a perspective on how dogs can help you cope on a daily basis.

Overall, the responses we received are positive and people love how dogs seemed to just know what they need at the moment. This just proves how deep the connection could be between a human and a dog, and how love can make all the difference in the world.

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