(4) Can a service dog help a veteran with PTSD?


Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly:

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)


Can a service dog help a veteran with PTSD?

 On a trip to any VA (Veteran’s Administration) hospital, you will see service dogs, helping veterans with everything from seeing eye dogs to diabetic alert dogs. While we have yet to take Molly with us, many veterans take their dogs. Trips to the VA Hospital can be stressful for a veteran and often trigger memories of earlier hospitalizations for severe war injuries and trauma. Consequently, veterans find their service dogs helpful. (Emotional support dogs do not qualify as service dogs and are not entitled to accompany a veteran to the hospital.)

The US Department of Veterans Affairs addresses the issue of dogs and PTSD. The website acknowledges that dogs “lift your mood or help you feel less stressed.” It cautions, however, that research is lacking to know if dogs help treat PTSD or its symptoms. “. . . It is difficult to draw strong conclusions from the few studies on dogs and PTSD that have been done.”

The website suggested that a dog may hinder a veteran’s recovery from PTSD by doing things the veteran should learn to do for him/herself.

“If the dog keeps strangers from coming too close, the owner will not have a chance to learn that they can handle this situation without the dog.”

When I shared the VA’s statement with my veteran, he said, “That’s why I wanted a service dog—to keep strangers away.”

I sigh and acknowledge that one of the symptoms of my husband’s PTSD is uneasiness around strangers and hyper-vigilance with the fear of attack. Forty-seven years after the Vietnam war, his PTSD symptoms remain. Molly helps make visits out of the home safe and bearable.

The VA classified William “homebound” from his PTSD in 2010. While he is ambulatory, his symptoms of PTSD are so severe that the doctors acknowledge that leaving the safety of our home makes his condition worse. Although he functions well at home, he must go out for doctors’ appointments and makes occasional visits to church and Costco. Molly not only helps him stay on his feet but she also keeps him calm, focused, and . . . away from strangers.

Many veterans with service dogs assert their dogs have enabled them to leave their homes and go out into the world.

“Without my dog, I’d never leave my home,” said a young veteran suffering from TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).

As research continues on the effectiveness of service dogs as a treatment for PTSD, the VA remains steadfast to “evidence based treatments”–those that are proven to help veterans cope with the disability.

For those veterans with a service dog to help with physical barriers, the dog is indispensable. If the veteran also has PTSD, the dog is as a life preserver in rushing waters.

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About the blogger

 Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her husband, William, and dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.