A soldier’s best friend


According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 31% of veterans receiving care at a Veterans Affairs facility were diagnosed with a mental illness.

Dealing death at a distance, losing friends to enemy attacks, being shot, or seeing death itself can cause a variety of psychological disor-ders such as PTSD in veterans. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) affects nearly 12% to 20% of returning veterans comparable to the 30% of veterans who returned from Vietnam.

PTSD, an anxiety disorder, affects soldiers but also other victims of traumatic events: Car accidents, sexual assaults, natural disasters and so on.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs lists the most common symptoms associated with PTSD: Having re-occurring flash-backs or experiencing the emotions or fear of the event again, avoiding scenarios that remind the person of their traumatic event, unable to re-collect memories, or being on the offensive (highly alert and cautious).

The presence of these symptoms can lead to alcohol abuse, depres-sion, anxiety, physical illness and relationship issues.

Friendships and marriages can be torn apart by this debilitating illness but most of all it can lead to suicidal thoughts and actual suicide.

 These symptoms and problems caused by PTSD can be reduced with the help of our furry little friends. Psychiatric Service Dogs or Mental Health Service Dogs (MHSD), along with medications and other therapies, can help reduce many mental illness symptoms.

With the assistance of a certified MHSD, vets can greatly reduce their anxiety levels and have reported that their service dog has helped them reassimilate back into society.

Darcie Boltz, founder of Heeling Allies, an innovative organization dedicated to training Mental Health Service Dogs, has used her experience and knowledge to develop therapeutic human-canine relationships.

Boltz is also the Vice President of Service for Service, an organization that specifically trains MHSDs for our service men and woman.

 “The bond between human and dog is kind of a mystery,” said Boltz. “They have a way of affecting us that helps us have a different perceptive on life.”

Indeed, these dogs provide a source of comfort and compan-ionship for the veteran but they also allow the veteran to be a part of society once again.

Put yourself in the veterans shoes: You are walking down the sidewalk and you hear this tremendous bang. It instantly reminds you of an explosion or rocket fire you exper-ienced in Iraq. You feel the pain, fear, anxiety, and the confusion. What should I do? I don’t want to die! You look around, not knowing what had exploded or if the enemy is not that far away. As you look around anxiously, you notice your service dog: The dog is calm and in turn it calms yourself. You realize it was just a loud noise and not an explosion or an enemy attack.

The benefit of having the dog during this event is that the veteran can compare his or her emotion with the dog. The dog can help the veteran realize that they are safe and not in danger.

“When I look at my dog when I am scared, I remember that life is good,” said Boltz regarding one of her clients statements. Dogs can be a very calming influence when PTSD sufferers experience anxiety or fear.

Boltz, based on experiences with her clients, also said that service dogs can help the owner have increased well being in their life. And they do not need to rely so heavily on anti-anxiety medication.

Mental Health Service Dogs also assist veterans by encouraging them to be a part of society once again.

When the veteran is outside, most likely around other people, their service dog gives them an extra pair of eyes and ears. Many dogs trained for this specific disorder can alert the owner that people are approaching them by nudging or pawing the owner. This behavior may not benefit every PTSD sufferer, but dogs can be trained to do a variety of tasks uniquely designed for each veterans wants and needs.

The simple presence of the dog can greatly reduce the veterans anxiety and stress that they would have experienced a lot more without their dog.

In a way, they act as a physical buffer between the world and the veteran: a comforting element desired by PTSD sufferers when in crowds.
When a veteran is in a crowd with their service dog, the crowd will kindly move aside to give them walking space. In effect, this is less anxiety provoking than being ‘stuck’ in a crowd.

“Dogs [can be trained] to walk in front of a person in a crowd,” said Boltz. “The crowd will part when they see the service dog: It doesn’t feel like the world is coming at [the veteran].”

The most debilitating symptom of PTSD is the unexpected and unavoidable things that can trigger anxiety responses. A particular sound, event, or visual experience can trigger a flashback of emotions or an event in PTSD sufferers.

“A medal handle could trigger a response that reminds them of holding a gun” Boltz said. “A lit match, for example, can also remind them of something bad”. Veterans suffering from PTSD can have a variety of triggers, many of which are a part of daily life.

Mental Health Service Dogs are truly an innovative form of treatment for this mental illness and many other illnesses as well.

The benefits of having a service dog help the veteran and other citizens continue living their lives. The benefits overpower the debil-itation from their illness which is incredible.

Mental Health Service Dogs give the owner a sense of safety and security because they are not alone when accompanied by ‘mans best friend’.

Of course, the cost per veteran to raise and train a service dog can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars; this form of treatment is a less likely compared to medications, therapies (cognitive therapy for example), and counseling.

Despite the limited capability for veterans to afford the aid of service dogs, house pets in general add value and reassurance in our lives. A dog doesn’t need to be officially trained or certified to provide comfort, support, a ‘person’ to talk to, or someone to play a decent game of ball with. A lot of people have those kinds of pets right in their own homes.

Pets have a healing power far beyond what many of us may think. Many service dog organizations like Heeling Allies and Service for Service are using this to their advantage: to provide a necessary rehabilitating form of treatment for individuals and veterans of the United States.

Mental Health Service Dogs are only one facet to the amazing world of canine service. Dogs can be used far beyond helping someone with a mental illness but can also assist humans with physical disabilities as well.

So the next time you see your dog (if you have one) ask yourself: “I wonder how he or she has helped increase my quality of life?” You may be surprised.