Veterans, PTSD and Psychiatric Service Dogs

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

In the previous posting we discussed the invisible disorder, PTSD. The discussion included a variety of reasons why Iraq and Afghani veterans have difficulty getting the help they need if, among other things, they suffer from PTSD. One of the greatest obstacles these veterans face is their own resistance to admitting they need help. The physical injuries suffered by these veterans are caused by combat, are visible and are both explainable and, in certain ways are acceptable. However, because PTSD falls into the category of a psychiatric disorder, many soldiers think of it as stigmatizing and unacceptable. In addition, except for close family and friends, very few people are aware of the symptoms suffered by these vets        

In order to review, the symptoms of PTSD include such things as:


1. Anger and irritability.

2. Startle responses to sudden noises or movements.

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3. Extreme anxiety and panic attacks.

4. Depression.

5. Social withdrawal and self isolation.

6. Nightmares and sleep disturbance (nightmares are often flashbacks to combat and are experienced as very real).

7. And many other symptoms that can be found in the former article and elsewhere on Mental Help Net.

What Is A Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained animals that are certified by private service dog organizations such as: Golden Kimba Service Dogs, NEADS(North East Assistance Dog Society, located in MA), and others that can be found on the Web at Assistance Dogs International(

Puppies Behind Bars (New York City) is one of the organizations that trains and places these dogs with injured Iraq and Afghan war veterans. This organization uses Labrador Retriever puppies that are paired with carefully selected prisoners who are taught to raise and train the dogs from eight weeks to fifteen months of age. The dogs are bred and selected for their calm temperament and are trained by the prisoners to do such things as:

Physical Disabilities:

1. Walk alongside a wheel chair.

2. Open a refrigerator door and pull bagged lunches out and bring to the disabled veteran.

3. Help the veteran undress by pulling sox off his feet.

4. Jump up and push the light switch on.

5. Bring the ringing telephone to the disabled vet.

6. And many other remarkable chores that allow the disabled vet to function independently.

In terms of PTSD, these dogs are trained to:

1. Accompany the veteran into stores, restaurants, buses, trains, air planes, work and any other public places that the vet may need to go.

2. Allow the veteran to remain calm by preventing people from crowding around him in public places by placing his or her self in front the vet thus providing a comfortable space for the vet.

3. Watching behind the veteran by calmly preventing anyone by rushing up behind him and surprising him. (The dog is never aggressive towards people but just provides a barrier and alerts the vet to people who may be approaching from behind).

4. Provide a reassuring presence for the vet by anticipating his needs both at home and outside in public.

How do Psychiatric Service Dogs Help Veterans with PTSD?

Many people ask this question, including the psychiatrists who treat these patients before they are willing to write a prescription for this specially trained type of dog.

Specifically, behavioral goals are set by the veteran and dog trainer who is helping the vet learn how to use the dog. This is where the certifying organizations come in such as, Golden Kimba Service Dogs or NEADS, both mentioned above.

After the dogs receive their training at Puppies Behind Bars or elsewhere, they are shipped to the certifying organizations such as Golden Kimba Service Dogs, etc, where they meet their new trainer who completes what was started in training. The dog is exposed to public places as much as possible to prepare them for life in the outside world with the veteran.

One or two weeks later, the veteran arrives and meets his or her dog. From then onward, they work with the trainer to learn everything that is needed to form a powerful bond between dog and veteran and to live in the outside world. Depending on the behavioral goals of the veteran, and that depends on the nature of the symptoms, the veteran learns to use his dog to help him function with a minimum of interference from those symptoms.

One of the challenges faced by the veteran is helping his family understand that the dog is not their pet but is his ally and helper in the world. That is why family is encouraged to accompany the veteran in this part of the training. For example, no one in the family is to walk and feed the dog. Also, the dog is Never to be left at home for any reason. Even when visiting the doctor and the psychiatrist the dog is to accompany the veteran. All of this is easier for family to understand and accept if they are present at training, can ask questions and learn about both the dog and PTSD. While I cannot report any scientific studies done to measure the effectiveness of these dogs in reducing PTSD for veterans I am able to state that Golden Kimba Service Dogs has seen these people make remarkable gains in the way they live their lives after they return home with their dog.

Psychiatric service dogs help veterans over come their social isolation in the following way:

Because the service dog needs to be walked several times per day, the veteran is forced to be outside and in public. The dog must wear an identifying cape with the training company logo on it and the vet wears a picture of ID of himself and the dog. While the purpose of the cape and ID are not designed to attract public attention, this attention happens to the benefit of the vet who is forced to answer questions of well meaning people who want to learn about the dog. In working with the trainer and the dog, in public, the veteran learns how to answer questions and deal with a curious public.

Many veterans with these dogs have reported that their anxieties and fears have been greatly reduced as a result of having the dog with them at all times. In fact, several of them reported that when they suddenly awaken at night due to a having a nightmare or hearing a noise in the house, feel relieved and calm when they realize their dog is perfectly calm and quiet. After all, if the nightmare were real, or if there were an intruder in the house, the dog would be barking and agitated.


It can be well imagined that providing these dogs is an expensive process. The Veterans Administration does not pay for any of this. However, Puppies Behind Bars has a very effective fund raising program and is able to pay for those veterans who qualify for a psychiatric assistance dog.

Puppies Behind Bars may be found at the following web site:

Questions and comments about this are welcome.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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