What one thing can lower your blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, boost your immune system and make you feel like getting out there and exercising? Answer—a dog. (Okay, I admit cats, horses and some other pets can do it too, but this blog is about dogs.) Some dog trainers and scientists have taken it one step further—training dogs to help PTSD patients reduce their symptoms and reclaim their lives.
One of my wonderful readers from last week left me a comment regarding this training program so I decided to do a little research. An on-going study, managed by the James Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida, has paired 17 dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD. The service dog and veteran must successfully complete a training program accredited by the International Guide Dog Association or Assistance Dogs International.
Each dog is trained to meet the specific needs of the person it’s paired with. Some tasks dogs might be required to perform for a patient suffering with PTSD include sensing anxiety, waking and calming their owners in case of nightmares or flashbacks, turning on lights or checking out dark rooms, moving through crowded spaces or retrieving personal items.
These dogs serve the veteran just by being dogs, too. Dogs need care, food, water, exercise. The patient benefits simply from shifting their focus to the dog and its needs. In fact, one PTSD sufferer found his anxiety and the medication he needed to sleep was reduced by 50% within only one week of receiving a service dog.
In addition, dogs are the ultimate in unconditional love. They don’t care if we’re scarred, or walk with a limp or need a wheelchair to get around. They accept us just the way we are. It doesn’t get much better than having a calm, comforting friend beside us when we’re feeling anxious. Especially if that friend has super hearing, a nose that can sniff out a two-day old rabbit trail, a built-in warning system and big teeth!
That’s the good news. The bad news is the Department of Veterans Affairs recently issued a 67 page rule that says the VA will pay service dog benefits to veterans with vision, hearing or mobility-related injuries, but not to veterans suffering from PTSD or other mental health disabilities. The VA claims there’s not enough evidence that the dogs actually provide a benefit.
It’s estimated there are over 200,000 PTSD sufferers in the United States, with more coming home from overseas every day. If a scientific study is what the VA needs, it seems like there would be plenty of volunteers in that group, and they could take a big bite out of the pet overpopulation problem at the same time.
The program to provide dogs is currently on hold while the study in Tampa comprised of the 17 dogs and veterans already paired will continue. Meanwhile, the estimated 3,000 PTSD sufferers who are hospitalized for treatment every month will continue to be medicated—sleeping pills, anxiety medications, anti-depressants and tranquilizers.
Is it just me, or is there something wrong here?