January 29, 2019
By LG Nixon
As a pet owner, many of us can attest the fact our dogs, and pets in general, can help boost our
moods or help us feel less stressed with their special brand of craziness to make us smile. However, PTSD
can drain the happiness from even the most stoic soldier.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a trauma or stress induced disorder which negatively
effects the mental health, and the quality of life for the individual. Unfortunately, it substantially effects
our military service men and women, and our Veterans who have experienced combat activity. The
onlinelibrary.wiley.com citation indicates an estimated five to twenty percent of returning military
Veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, with nearly fifty percent of Veterans seeking medical attention who
test positive for PTSD, but a lower number of those actually receive a PTSD diagnosis.
The article Dogs and PTSD at the ptsd.va.gov website (VA Health Care, PTSD: National Center
for PTSD), lists several benefits owning a dog can bring to pet parents as well as to Veterans with PTSD.
Benefits can include feelings of love, comfort, sociability, reduced stress, including the added benefits of
actually being able to leave the house to spend time with others, enjoying the out-of-doors, and even
meeting new people in new environments. These are also some of the benefits listed by Veterans I have
interviewed over the years who have a support animal.
However, the VA article went on to say there is not enough clinical research available to conclude
efficacy for the use of dogs for treatment of PTSD. Their recommendation maintains the established
forms of treatment, such as medication and behavior modifications, although the use of a companion
animal indicates it may help increase the success of current standard treatments. Research by a major
university study has found that dropout rates and unsuccessful treatment responses are as high as fifty
percent among those being treated conventionally. These rates drop considerably when a support dog is
added to the treatment. You can find the link at rebootcamp.militarytimes.com.
In a 2015 article at military.com, and confirmed on the VA Office of Research and Development,
the Veterans Association is conducting a pilot program to study use of service dogs in treating mental
health disorders. The topic of service dogs and PTSD is not new, and a 2010 session of Congress
instituted a study that was launched by the VA the following year, but was suspended after children were
bitten by the service dogs in two homes. Another study was undertaken in 2012 but was also stopped after
the welfare and the training of the service dogs became an issue of concern. Since then, the VA has
established higher standards, and enlisted a separate entity to oversee the clinical trails. In August 2016,
The Department of Veteran Affairs announced they would pilot a program to include veterinary benefits
for participants of the study. Results of the study have yet to be released.
However, several articles on the behavior modification benefits of a support dog for PTSD are
available across the web. An article dated July 2012 at smithsonian.com, How Dogs Can Help Veterans
Overcome PTSD, reveals that new research indicates the animal-human bond could help Veterans of the
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by redeveloping the vet’s ability to communicate in an assertive manner
without aggression. The article states that Veterans interacting with their animal are helped to overcome
emotional numbness, and by teaching the animal service commands, the Veteran’s ability to communicate
Other research has also uncovered the connection between the hormone Oxytocin, a
neurotransmitter which improves the ability to trust can be an antidote to depressive feelings,
(psychologytoday.com). Often called the love hormone, levels of Oxytocin increase whenever people hug
or kiss. The same is true for animals that receive a loving pat, caress, praise, or a hug. By mutual release
of this brain chemical, animals and humans can bond through the increased ability to trust each other.
With the increased use of therapy animals in the last twenty years, research shows the interaction of
animals and humans improve the physical, emotional, and social health of children, teens, and adults. You
can check the citations for the Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond at the website petpartners.com.
According to a number of articles in Psychology Today, psychologytoday.com, research shows
the use of mental health service dogs may reduce the PTSD symptoms in Veterans, but not eliminate it.
Military Veterans who received a service dog, according to a study from a major university, performed
better in both psychological and physiological measures than did those Veterans who were still waiting to
receive a dog. You can read the articles Do Service Dogs Help Military Veterans with PTSD and Do
Psychiatric Service Dogs Really Help Veterans with PTSD at psychologytoday.com.
The American Kennel Club has also added their support to this discussion. The article How Dogs
Are Helping Returning Military Soldiers Combat PTSD can be found on their website, akc.org. In brief,
the article introduces you to a Veteran and his dog, and the uplifting change he has experienced since
receiving his support dog.
While things are slowly changing, currently the Office of Veteran Affairs only recognizes a guide
or service dog as being: 1) a trained dog who performs specific tasks for a person who cannot do the task
because of a physical disability, 2) must mitigate the disability, 3) must be needed by the individual. A
guide or service dog is one who helps a blind person, or someone who is mobility challenged or confined
to a wheelchair, and even a person who experiences seizures where the dog is trained to remove
dangerous objects to protect the person from being injured during the seizure. Service dogs are specially
trained to perform particular tasks, those which are not part of their natural behavior, like learning to do
things their handler would normally do for themselves.
These animals also carry accreditation allowing them full access to accompany their owners
under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. There are few areas where they are not allowed, but
generally they are permitted access with their owner. These support animals also receive veterinary
benefits under their owners Veteran benefits. Articles at servicedogcentral.org offer further definitions
between a psychiatric service dog and an emotional support animal. Please visit their website for further
The VA does provide benefits for which the Veteran is qualified, including veterinary services.
While the VA does not provide service dogs (SD) or guide dogs (GD), the dogs must be provided to the
Veteran through an accepted organization such as the Assistance Dogs International or the International
Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) in order to qualify for veterinary services.
An emotional support dog (ESD) is considered a pet who provides friendship or companionship
to the owner. This dog does not carry accreditation, they are not allowed access to most public venues
unless under special exception with an accompanying letter from a mental health provider stating the need
for the animal, and the dogs are not recognized by the VA nor do they receive any veterinary benefits.
An emotional or companion support dog does not receive any specialized training. While all of
this is true according to the VA established guidelines, it does not in any way reduce the valuable
connection of love and support our Veterans receive from their companion animals which can help them
manage their PTSD symptoms. These benefits are a bonus and should not be considered validation for
calling the dog a service animal. Your emotional support dog should not be confused with a psychiatric
support dog (PSD) as the PSD is a highly trained animal.
Many Veterans will state that they feel more relaxed knowing a hyper vigilant individual is with
them and will help take care of them. This benefit alone helps guide the Veteran toward successful
adjustment and coping with their PTSD. A myriad of articles in print and online support these views. An
emotional support dog by its very nature is of extreme benefit and performs a valuable service for our
Veterans. Fortunately, there are many organizations like K9 Camo Companions across the United States
who are dedicated to helping Veterans by pairing them with a companion animal who can offer support,
companionship and many health benefits, including the fun, lively antics they bring to the home and
K9 Camo Companions works very hard to provide excellent service to each of our Veterans
receiving a pet. These pets are chosen from among various shelters and rescues, thus saving a life for each
of these wonderful animals. The animals are then trained to become a well mannered member of a
Veteran’s family. K9 Camo Companions also offer extended benefits of a food pantry including
equipment such as harnesses, leases, beds and toys. If the Veteran requests further training to help them
care for their support dog, K9CC is there to help.
If you would like further training for your support animal, checkout the Canine Good Citizen
programs offered through the American Kennel Club. Go to akc.org or search Canine Good Citizen to be
directed to the CGC page at akc.org. It’s never too late and a pet is never too old to become a Good
Citizen and receive their certificate from the American Kennel Club.
For more information on service and emotional support dogs, please visit va.org for the
guidelines from the ADI and IGDF organizations.