Dogs fighting depression and PTSD

The U.S. military supports the use of service dogs and therapy dogs to help wounded warriors obtain a higher level of independence, well-being, and purpose.

There’s an important distinction between service and therapy dogs. Service dogs are trained to do work or perform specific tasks for those with disabilities (as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act). The dog becomes a full-time companion for the person it serves. Service dogs also can retrieve objects, turn on lights, or open doors for those with mobility issues. Guide dogs assist visually impaired individuals, and signal dogs alert those who are hearing-impaired.

Therapy dogs offer goal-directed emotional, psychological, and (sometimes) physical support. They’re trained to provide comfort, affection, and unconditional acceptance. They can complement treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) too. A therapy dog usually belongs to its “handler,” who accompanies it on visits to patients. Such dogs also complete special training, but it’s less lengthy than that of service dogs.

The value of animal-assisted interventions (including service and therapy dogs) has become widely accepted. The range of benefits includes positive physical and psychological health effects. Just physically touching a dog can reduce blood pressure, anxiety, stress, and hopelessness. These dogs are helping injured and ill Military Service Members at military and veterans’ hospitals across the country.

A special program exists where the roles of dogs in service and therapy come together: Veterans with PTSD train service dogs for veterans with mobility issues. This is a win-win: Both the veteran-trainer and the mobility-impaired veteran benefit from the same dog. Veteran-trainers learn and use positive methods of shaping a dog’s behavior, and as they do so, regain control of their own emotions, focus their attention, improve their social competence, and gain a sense of meaningful purpose.

Learn more about training dogs for service. And watch the Military Health System’s video of therapy dogs at work.