Training Assistance Dogs for PTSD

Training Assistance Dogs for PTSD: Guest Blog

Assistance dogs have long been recognised as valuable companions for people with physical disabilities, but their potential to aid people with mental health conditions, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is increasingly being acknowledged. These specially trained animals can provide a sense of security, companionship, and emotional support, helping individuals with PTSD to manage their symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. In this article, we will explore the benefits of assistance dogs for people with PTSD and C-PTSD, including the ways in which they can be trained. But what makes a good Assistance Dog? How are they trained? This guest blog from the team at Adolescent Dogs looks at this in more detail.

“Anyone who has lived with a dog can vouch for the many benefits they bring. The companionship, the fulfilling sense of responsibility, and their ability to make us smile and provide us with endless entertainment. It’s no wonder then that the positive impacts they can have on the lives of people with PTSD is now becoming increasingly clear.

A mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on your normal day-to-day activity, and while dogs may not replace the typical PTSD treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, they can provide additional support and enhance the lives of their owners.

Given the lengthy waiting lists for fully-training PTSD support dogs from charities, more people are turning to training their own dog to assist them.

Training your own assistance dog can provide many benefits, not only from the support they can give you once they are fully trained, but also the process of training a dog can be incredibly rewarding. Having a bond with a dog who is there to support you and be by your side whenever you need them is invaluable to many people.

However, the journey of choosing and training a dog to be specialised in PTSD support is not always easy or straight-forward and we should never underestimate the time and effort required. Not every dog will be suitable for such a specialised role and we have to be mindful of not exposing our dogs to situations they can’t cope with, in the hope of them helping us. Making sure your dog is right for your needs is absolutely essential.

What makes an assistance dog?

Assistance dogs need to be able to mitigate their handler’s disability, whether that’s through more physical, practical tasks, or through emotional support, everyone will have their own needs from an assistance dog. Some examples of tasks assistance dogs can do for PTSD include:

  • Deep Pressure Therapy, e.g. laying against someone’s chest or leaning against them
  • Leading their handler to familiar, safe places or finding help
  • Interrupting panic/anxiety attacks
  • Interrupting behaviours, such as self-harm, twitching, shaking e.g. placing chin on knee, leaning against legs, nudging, and providing a distraction
  • Helping someone calm down before anxiety escalates further
  • Comforting or waking someone during flashbacks or night terrors
  • Providing security and the feeling of support
  • Standing between their handler and another person to act as a blocker, or searching the house to aid hypervigilance
  • Retrieving medication or other physical tasks like turning on lights, opening doors, finding items

As well as the more practical tasks, dogs can also provide benefits in other ways …

Bonding with a dog can help people overcome trust and relationship issues, their reliable presence offers a stability and they can elevate serotonin and dopamine levels which help with calmness and relaxation.

By reducing stress and anxiety, a dog can enable a person to practice their responses to stressful or triggering situations.

They may be able to work through challenging situations more effectively with their dog offering an additional security, knowing their dog will help them find a way out of a situation or interrupt anxiety or panic attacks before they escalate.

If the presence of a dog helps elevate serotonin and dopamine levels, it may help a person to remain in a better mindset to cope with potential triggers and handle stressful situations more positively.

Choosing an owner-trained assistance dog

When considering training your own dog to support you, there are some key factors to think about.

It’s not a decision to be taken lightly or an impulse purchase of a puppy to train, because in order to train a successful PTSD support dog, you need to choose the right puppy, as well as be dedicated to their ongoing training.

Some of the factors to consider:

Time

  • Training a dog is an ongoing process, it doesn’t happen overnight and there are often setbacks along the way. This means you need to be willing and able to put time and effort into training your dog
  • Assistance Dog charities are able to pair people with ready-trained dogs because of the time they have put into them, they could take 18months to 2 years before the dog is ready to be qualified. These are also puppies specially bred or selected for the role, making them ideal candidates
  • If you’re training your own dog, you have to expect the same timeline, or even longer, before your dog is fully ready to assist you

Effort

  • Puppies aren’t born as blank slates or ready-made assistance dogs, they need to be taught the behaviours you require and general good manners to make them suitable to accompany you day-today
  • Some dogs will naturally be more suited to this role and training will be smoother, while others may never be suitable no matter how much training you do with them
  • Positive socialisation is a key foundation for a suitable assistance dog, carefully exposing a puppy to a range of environments and situations is a time-consuming process, which ideally should be prioritised in their first 16 weeks of life

The Right Dog

  • You should consider many factors, like the size of the dog, whether a big dog or small dog is more suitable to your needs, how much exercise they need, how ‘trainable’ they are, how they may be perceived in public situations (choosing a suitable breed is undeniably important)
  • It’s vital to have a suitable dog otherwise you could spend years trying to mould a dog into something they will never be right for
  • For some people, choosing a stable adult dog will be better than a puppy, but this depends on what you need from the dog and whether you can find the right adult dog

Temperament Testing

  • Assistance dogs will be placed in challenging environments and expected to perform tasks and roles under high levels of distraction, they need to be able to cope confidently with this
  • They need a stable temperament and an ability to remain relaxed in all situations they are exposed to
  • Not all dogs will be capable of this, and if a dog is worried, fearful, or over-excited by different environments or situations then expecting them to assist a person would be unfair
  • Assistance dogs are likely to be working around members of the public so they must be trustworthy, safe, and happy in the presence of unfamiliar people
  • They should also be able to work without drawing attention, for example, without barking or reacting negatively to situations. A good assistance dog will be able to quietly and calmly assist their handler and cause little to no impact on those around them
 

If you already have a dog and want to train them to assist you, it’s important to think about what elements you can work through with them and which ones will limit their abilities as an assistance dog.

Every dog is different, so while one dog may be capable of learning to relax in a busy environment, another may never be able to adjust to this type of situation.

Behaviours or reactions can be changed to some extent but whether that’s enough for your dog’s role is an important consideration.

Trying to transform a very nervous dog into one confident enough to assist in busy environments, is likely to be an unrealistic goal. With any dog, we are always working within some limits, set by their genetics and their past experiences, meaning not all dogs will have the traits required for the role.

The importance of support when training your own dog

Training a dog, especially for a specific role, is often a complicated process with moments of great success and moments of frustration or disappointment. Having support from an experienced trainer is really essential, they can provide support in training specific tasks, but they can also be a listening ear when things are more challenging.

It can’t be underestimated how important it is to have the guidance from others when training your own dog. They will be able to recognise signs that your dog may be struggling with the training and offer guidance on how to improve things.

Alongside this, having a community of people also training their own assistance dogs can provide you with reassurance and support from others who have been through a similar process. While everyone’s journeys with their dogs will be unique to them, there will be similar challenges and successes, so knowing you can share with others, receive their feedback and hear their experiences can make a huge difference.

Another benefit dogs can bring is that they connect us with people around us, for those who find building relationships with people more difficult, their dogs often become a way of connecting with like-minded people and opening opportunities to build new relationships in a safe way. Whether that’s with your dog trainer, others training their assistance dogs, or dog owners on your walks, it can be a significant building block to relationships.

If you’d like support with training your own assistance dog for PTSD or for other reasons, get in touch with us. We offer an affordable and easily accessible assistance dog programme.”


If you would like to learn more about the Assistance Dog Training Program with Adolescent Dogs, please visit their website here (please note, as an affiliate charity, Adolescent Dogs make a donation of 20% of the course fees to PTSD UK for everyone who signs up to their owner training course through this link).


Find out more about Assistance Dogs and how they can help people with PTSD and C-PTSD here

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.

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