Service dogs, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), are “dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The ADA also provides examples of what service dogs do, including “calming a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack.”
PTSD service dogs are a type of psychiatric service dog. They are as legitimate as any other type of service dog – including mobility assistance dogs, guide dogs for the blind, and seizure alert dogs. They’re trained to perform a number of disability-mitigating tasks including retrieving medication.
Service dogs who are trained for people with PTSD are often mislabelled as being emotional support animals which are not covered by the ADA, unfortunately.
When it comes to service dogs, the public has become more accustomed to seeing them assisting people with visual impairments. Because of that, there is a lot of ignorance surrounding service dogs that assist people with other disabilities. This is especially present for those who have “invisible” health issues including PTSD and anxiety.
What do PTSD Service Dogs Do?
Most people are unaware of the exact role that service dogs play in the day-to-day life of someone suffering with PTSD. This is mainly due to the fact that there is a lot of ignorance surrounding PTSD support dogs and service dogs in general; many people think that service dogs are only available for the visually impaired.
Basic PTSD Service Dog Tasks
One of the most important tasks that a PTSD service dog carries out is disrupting anxiety-induced episodes. These service dogs are trained to disrupt emotional overloads, which usually includes grounding their handler during a flashback.
When someone experiences hallucinations or flashbacks and night terrors, tactile stimulation and assistance from a service dog can provide important reality affirmation.
Dogs may be able to naturally perform this behavior, but they will need training to be able to do this on command. The training will also help to make the dog’s reactions more reliable at any location and when distractions are present.
Dogs will be trained to vigorously lick someone’s face on command in order to bring their handler to full awareness. This is similar to seizure response dog training as it can shorten their recovery time from a grand mal. The dog’s act of licking their handler’s face can also divert their attention from something that is triggering their emotional reaction.
Dogs can also be trained to nudge their handler so that they can interrupt an emotional overload. With the dog’s interruption, a person may be able to recover from their flashback or overload much faster. Service dogs will repeat their nudging until their handler recovers enough to respond.
“Break the Spell” Strategy
Sometimes, the tactile stimulations won’t be enough for a service dog to nudge someone out of an emotional overload episode. If that is the case, a dog will perform the “break the spell” strategy.
When someone is experiencing night terrors, hallucinations, sickening memories or suicidal thoughts that can’t be shaken, research has shown that quickly changing the scene can break the spell.
Service dogs will be trained to turn on bedroom lights and other lights if needed. This is particularly useful when someone is experiencing a night terror, as a dog will use this as part of a wake up routine.
They can also be trained to bring the TV remote to their handler on command, which will enable them to be able to turn on the set. The sudden audio and visual stimuli, accompanied with the dog’s assistance, can help get rid of any distressing thoughts, feelings and images.
PTSD service dogs will also be able to fetch a drink or medication so that this will draw their handler’s attention away from what is causing them distress. It will help strengthen their handler’s ability to remain in the “here and now.”
Treatment Related Tasks
These tasks are a way in which a service dog can assist a patient to cope with certain aspects of living with a psychiatric disability.
Training makes use of a dog’s internal alarm clock, so that they can remind their handler to take their medication on time. The training employed is based on Pavlov’s dogs theory, so dogs are usually taught to expect to be fed, or have a treat at the same time every day.
Service dogs will often pick up their food bowl, or repeatedly nudge their handler at the same time every day. This will remind their partner that they need to take their medicine, but they will also need to feed their dog, or the begging and interrupting won’t stop.
Waking and Alerting
A few psychotropic medications can cause deep sedation, making it difficult to wake. Some other pain, seizure and anxiety medications can also have sedative side effects. If a person takes these types of medications, their service dog will be trained to wake or alert their handler if they do not do so on their own.
Some instances in which a service dog may need to get their handlers attention include:
- Alerting sedated handler to a cry of distress
- Waking or alerting a sedated handler to the sound of the doorbell
- Alerting sedated handler to smoke alarm sound and assisting them with their exit
Dogs will usually be trained to persistently lick their handlers face or nudge them to wake them up in order to get their attention. If a service dog is alerting their handler to a distressed cry, they will also lead their handler to the source of the noise, so that they can help.
Service dogs can also be trained to wake up their handler for work or school. PTSD, panic disorder and major depression can disrupt our natural thought processes. So, someone with one of these conditions may not want to get up for work or school.
When this happens, dogs can respond to an alarm clock – like hearing dogs – and wake their handler up by getting up on the bed, and nudging or licking their partner till they wake. They can also be trained to use their “internal alarm clock” to wake their partner at the same time every day.
Other PTSD Service Dogs Tasks
PTSD service dogs can assist their partners in a number of different ways. Some more tasks they are trained to do includes:
- Bringing their partner their phone in a crisis or retrieving an emergency phone
- Answering the door to let emergence personal or support staff into the property
- Bring help to their partner and provide speech impairment assistance
- Summon help
- Provide balance assistance on stairs
- Bring water or beverages to their partner if they are suffering with a dry mouth following medication (through hand signals)
- Provide excuse to leave upsetting situation (will nudge/bother or vocalize to their partner)
- Assist in finding building exits
- Crowd control for panic prevention in public
- Keep suspicious strangers away
- Increase safety in public
It’s worth remembering that each person’s experience with PTSD is different, so each service dog’s responsibilities will be unique.
Where are Service Dogs Not Allowed?
While pet dogs are only allowed in certain public spaces, stores, office buildings, etc., service dogs are allowed to accompany their handler in any space that is open to the public. This includes grocery stores and restaurants, and is valid even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises. Service dogs are even allowed in hospital exam rooms and patient rooms.
The only exception when it comes to public places is areas in which the dog’s presence would compromise the health and safety of others. For example, service dogs are not permitted in hospital operating rooms.
PTSD service dogs provide valuable assistance to those who suffer from the disorder. While many of the tasks they perform are common to others with PTSD, ultimately each dog is trained to assist with the specific and unique needs of their handler.