Psychiatric Service Dogs, Very Special Dogs, Indeed

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On February 15th, 2008 I posted an article about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Iraqi veterans.

In rereading the posting, I realized that I had not stressed the importance of Psychiatric Service Dogs in helping veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan cope with their traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder and meet the challenges of daily civilian life. The purpose of this posting is to explain just what Psychiatric Service Dogs are and how they help with PTSD and other psychiatric disorders.  The original posting can be found at the following URL:


Psychiatric Service Dogs: 

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A Psychiatric Service Dog is specially trained to assist individuals with psychiatric disabilities. The dogs are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA), as well as individual state statutes. These dogs are not pets but are working dogs with public access rights. Public access as it applies to service dogs allows the dog to be taken anywhere that the general public is allowed to go. This includes all forms of public transportation (including riding with their partner in the passenger compartment of airplanes), places of worship, restaurants, stores, malls, hospitals, and doctor and dentist offices.

Psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained to help individuals deal with the symptoms of their disabilities. Psychiatric conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety, Severe Depression, Panic Attacks, Phobias, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders respond well to the work of these special dogs.

How can these dogs possibly help? What do they do, you might ask? There are many answers to these questions. Dogs trained to deal with PTSD are taught to prevent strangers from coming too close. By positioning themselves in front of their partners, they prevent people from getting into their personal space. In the case of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the dogs are often trained to "watch." This takes the place of the veteran having to watch his back; a common urge that many combat veterans share. As you can see in the photograph, Bill can concentrate on taking photos while his Service Dog, Pax, watches for strangers approaching from behind. It is important to emphasize that these are not guard dogs. They alert by movement or nudging their partners in situations that might be startling or upsetting.

These dogs also provide reality checks for visual and auditory hallucinations. A veteran recently reported that while spending a quiet evening at home, he suddenly felt a strange person standing close to him. He looked down at his Service Dog who was asleep at his feet and realized that no one could possibly be there without the dog reacting.

Psychiatric Service Dogs often alert to obsessive-compulsive behaviors by "pawing" individuals who may not realize what they are doing. This helps to distract them from the behavior.

The dogs carry prescriptions and medical information in their vests, remind their partners to take medications, give them reason to get out of bed and leave the house, and provide a constant non-judgmental, loving presence. Service Dogs and their partners are together 24/7.

Anxiety and panic attacks are also helped by Psychiatric Service Dogs through tactile stimulation. When a client is extremely nervous and upset, they are encouraged to run their hands through the dog's fur and massage the dog's entire body. Through these tactile experiences, clients learn to relieve their symptoms. This technique works particularly well in times of stress. In fact, my wife, who is extremely afraid of flying, recently used this technique with her Service Dog, Skye, on a particularly rough flight. She also had to remind herself that Skye would not have been contentedly dozing at her feet if the plane was about to crash!

The presence of these dogs also relieves isolation and encourages social interaction. People are fascinated by the work of these dogs and constantly ask questions. This urges the client to become more comfortable dealing with strangers. Paul Dymon, a puppy raiser for Canine Companions states: "I can't imagine a greater social tool...animals are instant conversation, instant friendships and an extra extention of care."

One of the best things about PTSD clients partnering with Psychiatric Service Dogs is that the presence of the dog often distracts them from focusing on their own fears and worries. Instead, they must focus on the dog, its behavior, its safety and its care.

The list of what these dogs can be taught to do goes on and on. Each of the dogs are taught specific tasks, depending on the needs of their partners. These can often include, but are by no means limited to getting the phone in an emergency, calling 911 on a K-9 Rescue Phone, barking for help, providing balance support,retrieving needed or dropped articles,opening the refrigerator to bring food or drink, alerting others in medical emergencies, finding the car in a crowded parking lot and leading the client to safety.

As the bond between Service Dogs and their partners deepens, they become more and more in tune with one another and their ability to provide for one another's needs increases. By far, one of the best things I have heard from a Service Dog partner is, "This dog makes me laugh. He fills my life with a sense of joy and love that I haven't been able to feel for a very long time."

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