How dogs can help people with PTSD

How dogs can help people with PTSD

Most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals. However, many of us remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond.

Barry and Bella, Crufts HiLife PAT Dog of the Year 2019

It is estimated that as many as 1 in 10 people develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some stage in their life. Typical treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy and EMDR, but research increasingly highlights the fact that dogs can be effective at supporting people with PTSD.

Road to recovery: How a dog or pet improves its owner’s life

Pets, and specifically dogs offer numerous forms of support to PTSD sufferers, depending on the specific needs of the individual. For example, assault survivors may be reluctant to go out in public without the aid of a companion dog who can instil in them confidence and a feeling of security.

Experts say that dogs have been successful in aiding the recovery of sexual assault victims, being uniquely suited to help them overcome trust and relationship issues. Furthermore, it is suggested that dogs are a great way for an individual to practise controlling stress levels and regulating their tone of voice.

Research offers strong support for the general value of pets and data shows that PTSD patients with a dog don’t just sleep more, but have higher levels of oxytocin and dopamine with reduced cortisol, the stress hormone.

How else do assistance dogs and pets help sufferers of post traumatic stress order?

  • Improved self-sufficiency, as service dogs can be trained to assist in daily tasks
  • Reduction in stress and anxiety in the individual, allowing them to practise their response to stressful or triggering situations
  • Provides a grounding for the patient through the dog’s consistent and positive presence
  • Playing with a dog or cat can elevate serotonin and dopamine levels, which calm and relax you.

We heard from Barry, a PTSD sufferer who’s dog, Bella, has been invaluable to help him. Bella, a Bichon Frise was rescued when she was 5 and a half months old. Bella helps Barry by waking him up in the night if she senses he’s having a nightmare. She does this by “firstly licking my left ear (which wakes me up) then she licks my neck which calms me down”. Bella also helps Barry if he’s having a panic attack by sitting on his feet and staring into his eyes which helps to ground him. When he tells her he’s ok, she moves off. Recently, Bella won the Crufts HiLife PAT Dog of the Year.

What makes a good assistance dog?

People suffering from PTSD require a calm companion who doesn’t behave unpredictably. Service dogs begin training at a young age, often as early as eight weeks, and are carefully screened by trainers to ensure that they possess the right temperament. Beyond this, fully trained dogs are assessed in terms of compatibility before being placed with a patient.

Vital qualities in an assistance dog include high levels of friendliness, patience, confidence and a gentle nature. They must also be at ease in all kinds of situations. The dogs need to be comfortable with extensive human contact that may see them handled and petted somewhat clumsily by unfamiliar people.

Needs vary from person to person, but assistance dogs can be trained to carry out a range of useful actions specific to improving the quality of life for someone afflicted by post traumatic stress disorder. Disability-mitigating tasks such as these include:

  • Fetching medication
  • Waking up their owner when they have a night terror
  • Ease symptoms of hypervigilance by searching the house to ensure it is secure
  • Guiding a patient home during an episode where they don’t have full control of their faculties
  • Provide tactile stimulation to help with anxiety attacks

A well-trained dog can be invaluable

With proper specialist training, an assistance dog can open doors for someone coping with PTSD but your own pet will be able to provide many benefits too. 

What the owner gets in return is unconditional love, support and assistance from until a full recovery is made.

Unfortunately, at present, there are a limited amount of organisations that are able to train and supply specific therapy or assistance dogs for those with PTSD in the UK.

One organisation that can provide dogs for PTSD sufferers is Service Dogs UK who train and provide PTSD Assistance Dogs, selected carefully from rescue, to support members of the Armed Forces and Emergency Services (including Coast Guard, RNLI and UKSAR) based in West Sussex, Surrey and East & North Hampshire.

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

In order to honour our dogs, and raise awareness of PTSD UK you can now buy a supporters bandana for your furry friend from our Supporters Shop

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You’ll find up-to-date news, research and information here along with some great tips to ease your PTSD in our blog.

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Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.