What is PTSD? And how can dogs help?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a trauma and stress-related disorder that affects about 1 in 12 adults at some point in their lives. PTSD can develop from exposure to a variety of psychologically traumatic events such as experiencing sexual abuse or assault, a life threatening event or natural disaster, or unexpected death or harm to a loved one.
All of us will experience some form of trauma during our lives, and most of us will recover without long-term difficulty. Some people who are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events, or experience a particularly traumatic incident, may go on to develop PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Our bodies instinctively respond to threat to help us survive-to get away, fight the threat, or slow down to let the threat pass. This is known as the Flight/Flight/Freeze response. Intense or repeated trauma can lead to this response becoming extremely sensitive.
When this happens almost any environment becomes threatening, and anything relating to the traumatic incident provokes an activation of the Flight/Flight/Freeze response. This contributes to many of the symptoms we associate with PTSD: Re-experiencing trauma when reminded of it; avoiding reminders of trauma; low mood or depression; severe anxiety; reactivity, irritability, and agitation; disturbed sleep and nightmares; dissociation, (to name but a few).

Military Personnel

Military personnel who are exposed to combat violence are strongly at risk for developing PTSD. Significant psychological, social, and functional difficulties may come out of this. PTSD is particularly prevalent in former military personal who often endure exposure to traumatic incidents in the course of their duties. Up to 25% of British Military personnel who have transitioned out of active duty would meet criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD.
PTSD is a particularly difficult disorder to treat in military personnel. While empirically supported treatments work for many people, some can have dropout and nonresponse rates of up to 50% . Additionally, few treatments incorporate the family members and/or spouses, who often suffer from their own psychological distress, secondary trauma, and caregiver burden.
Specially trained dogs are one adjunct to treatment option for PTSD that may also address the needs of the family unit and encourage treatment retention.
Assistance dogs for PTSD are specifically trained to instill a sense of confidence, safety, and independence on a day-to-day basis for the veteran.

How can dogs help?

Dogs that are trained as assistance dogs for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) help to reduce the impact of specific symptoms for people living with this debilitating condition, and can improve their overall quality of life.
A properly trained Assistance Dog can sense and react to their partner’s triggers and physiology to prevent anxiety attacks, interrupt or stop night terrors, provide a calming influence, divert attention, and encourage use of coping mechanisms. They are companions without judgment or expectation and can help those living with trauma to improve interpersonal connections, encourage engagement in the community, and regain areas of functioning that may have been diminished by their trauma.

How does it work?

Assistance Dogs help people with PTSD in a number of ways, based on the Human-Animal Bond, and with Advanced Skills Training provided by our PALS™ Programme.

The human-animal bond:

The close bond between a person and their dog encourages a sense of safety which can be tremendously beneficial for people living with PTSD.
The calming influence of a dog can help reduce both physical and psychological reactivity which is particularly relevant for people who have experienced trauma.
By tapping into this calming effect using grounding techniques, an Assistance Dog can reduce the perceived threat response allowing for increased community engagement and calmer interpersonal interactions.
We work with successful applicants to develop the vital bond with their dogs, and through this gain the skills and motivation they need to reach their goals.


Advanced skills training:

All VWD dogs undergo extensive preparation and training for up to a year before being placed with a Veteran, who then train together for another 12-18 months in advanced skills training.
People living with PTSD often show external signs associated with their stress response (e.g. agitation such as bouncing legs, rubbing hands, head in hands, breathing heavily, sweating excessively etc.). Our dogs are trained to use these external signs as cues for relevant skills to provide support or interruptions when it is needed most.
Our training is highly personalised, shaping a dog’s skills to an individual needs.
We also encourage and support further ongoing skills development once both Veteran and their dog have qualified as an Assistance Dog partnership.