Service Dogs and PTSD: Dogs Can Help Address Stress

An Interview with Heather Mishefske, emBARK

A Second Opinion: Do you feel having a dog in general (not specifically trained) can be helpful to a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? If so, why? In what ways? Are they especially helpful to veterans?
Heather Mishefske:
Absolutely a dog is helpful to anyone with PTSD. A dog does not need to be specifically trained to provide benefits to people with PTSD. Dogs meet us in the moment, and for people who struggle with traumatic events of the past, this is an amazing trait. Dogs give unconditional love to their people, and support them via multiple senses. While they support our emotional and tactile senses, they are a constant in our life. They do not ask us to explain, they do not ask us to talk, nor do they ask for emotional support back to them. They simply are there. Dogs also are able to create new routines for exercise, provide a first contact in social settings (which may otherwise be avoided), and allow for accountability in keeping the dog’s schedule for eating/letting out/walking.

ASO: In some cases would it be better for a person with PTSD to go through the process of acquiring a trained and certified service dog? Why or why not?
HM: If a person feels they need support while out in public and needs more than just emotional support, it is imperative that a dog be trained to support that person in public settings. Being out in public brings with it extreme distractions, difficult environments, loud sounds, unusual surfaces, and unique settings. A dog needs to have stealth focus to maintain his/her job in supporting its person under all of these circumstances. Some dogs are obtained via service dog organizations, and some are self-trained.  These dogs are trained to be able to provide mobility assistance, physically interrupt and redirect panic attacks, retrieve medications, alert help, provide nighttime support in the event of nightmares, redirect emotional upsets, provide mobility support, and remind the handler of daily tasks. A well-trained dog can work in a public setting around heavy distractions and provide support while ignoring these distractions.

ASO: You have found sometimes people claim their dogs are service dogs, but they really aren’t trained to be. Why do you think people do that? How does that create issues for people whose dogs ARE trained and certified?
HM: There is an alarming amount of dogs out in public who are not truly service dogs but whose owners claim they are. A service dog is defined as a dog who provides a task for the handler that the handler cannot do himself or herself. For many, a service dog is absolutely crucial in allowing these handlers to be able to survive in public. With many claiming that their pet is a service animal, this is hurting legislation allowing real service dogs to come into public settings. There have been examples in the press where seeing-eye dogs have been denied access in public settings due to businesses having had bad previous experiences with “fake” service dogs in that facility.

A service dog in public should be an invisible extension of its handler. They are not there to be petted, to be social, or to interact with anyone other than their person. They should have superb manners, stealth focus, and be completely attentive to their handler. Touting your pet as a service dog under false pretenses is hurting those who really rely on their service dogs, and this is hugely unethical. There is no national certification, no government regulations, or no “vest” requirements for service dogs. Dogs that are trained to perform tasks for disabled people qualify as service animals under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They are generally allowed to accompany their owners wherever the public can go. There is also something called an emotional support dog. These dogs support a person emotionally but are not allowed to accompany them in public places under the ADA laws. Emotional support dogs do not need the advanced training that service dogs do, as they do not have public access rights other than travel and housing rights.

ASO: How are dogs beneficial to their humans even if they don’t have PTSD? What are the benefits of having a dog?
HM:
There are SO many benefits!  Research has proven that being present around dogs or owning a dog can lower blood pressure, raise levels of feel-good hormones, get people out exercising, create social opportunities, help prevent children from developing allergies later in life, provide companionship, and many other amazing things!

Living with a dog requires you to be accountable. They require to us to be responsible for another life other than our own. In return they provide unwavering loyalty, nonjudgmental relationships, and a constant support. They simply walk side by side with us accompanying us through the web that life throws at us.

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