PTSD and service dogs

Yesterday I took a kayaking/hiking tour with a small group on the island of Kaua’i, Hawaii. As I stepped into the bus to join my eight companions for the short trip to the mouth of the Wailau River I noticed a quiet Golden Retriever lying on the seat alongside her owner. I asked a few questions by way of making conversation but the dog’s owner was as quiet as the dog. She seemed reluctant to make small talk.

At the river we milled about preparing the kayaks. We each paired up and that left the owner of the dog by herself. I wondered how this was going to work. The guide called her over. “Carly *, you and Goldie* can take this single.” (*not their real names)

I looked at the saddle cloth he was wearing. It read, “Service dog, PTSD, Some wounds are not visible”. I looked at my fellow traveler with new respect as I realized she was a currently serving service woman who had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that this was a way for her to live a normal life with the support of her companion Goldie. She remained self-contained throughout the day but engaged in everything we did with equal enjoyment.

Veterans of the Iraq and Afganistan wars are being offered therapy dogs to assist them to recover from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These dogs are specially trained by prisoners in programs in the US for the therapy dogs program. The dogs, usually golden Retrievers, are chosen for their placid nature. They are expected to keep close to their owner at all times, to sleep in their room, to walk with them wherever they go, to stand behind them to prevent someone approaching from behind or stand in front to prevent someone moving into their space. They are trained to protect their owners, to remain calm when the owners become hyperaroused with anxiety from time to time. Waking in a nightmare can be frightening but can be made less so if you wake and see that your dog is calmly asleep or unperturbed.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is known for the hyperarousal (overstimulation of the normal stress reaction we have to frightening events) that causes heart palpitations, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, shakes, cold sweats; Re-exeriencing in which a person believes they are back in the traumatic situation; and avoidance of the distressing situation or anything that has or might cause them to experience distress again. This disorder has gained recognition in the medical community in recent decades through the work of researchers studying veterans of wars over the past century. It is now widely accepted as a common response for up to 30% of veterans, 15% of people living in the community and up to 70% of ex-POWs.

Therapy has consisted largely of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) which attempts to change the way survivors interpret and experience their symptoms. Drug therapy for PTSD has also shown good effect. A combination of psychotherapy and drug therapy has proven the most effective. However, for some, the only therapy that has made a difference is the companionship of an animal that is unfailingly faithful, vigilant and protective.

The programs that supply these dogs have been overwhelmed by requests for dogs to support civilians as well as the many veterans who have struggled to endure the distressing symptoms of PTSD. For some veterans theis service ha come after suffering untreated for decades since the Vietnam war.

Companion animals may also prove to been valuable for the many civilians in the community who have PTSD due to assault, robbery, car accidents, public safety roles, or torture in other countries.

Yesterday Carly had a good day. She kayaked and hiked, calmly and with enjoyment, a long way from the war that left scars we couldn’t see. So did Goldie.