(45) Let Sleeping Dogs Lie–Unless she weighs more than 130 lbs.

Miss Molly profile

Golly, Miss Molly

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)

Twice weekly, William undergoes orthopedic rehabilitation therapy for trauma to his side. The problem stems back many years to loss of a lung at the hands of a VA doctor.

“The VA told us to be as aggressive as possible. They want this condition corrected.” His therapist gave him this explanation before beginning his rehab therapy. True to their word, they are being aggressive. Consequently, William suffers with more pain than usual.

Molly stays at home for his sessions, as she likely would growl at the therapist when William winces or groans from any therapy-induced pain. Around the same time William started undergoing therapy, Molly’s leg started hurting and she limps on the days he returns from therapy. My observation is that when William hurts, Molly hurts. Who can ask for a more empathetic therapy dog? While my observation is purely anecdotal, others report similar benefits to having a service dog [a therapy dog is not considered a service dog under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act); however, a service dog may also serve as a therapy dog].

In John Ensminger’s book, Service and Therapy Dogs in American Society*, a teenager, who suffered from a snowboard accident wrote, (p.93)

[The dog] took away all of the pain. The next visit I started to bond with the dog. She got into me quicker. She started to take away the pain faster. I felt a draining feeling when she was lying there, like she was draining away all the pain. . . .The last visit she got into me in ten seconds. I think that the dog is better than Tylenol with codeine because she takes the pain away better and works faster.

Information on the benefits of service dogs remains primarily anecdotal rather than empirically validated (scientifically tested). What little information there is, I hope our readers will find useful. I never considered myself a dog person before Molly. In fact, my condition as cat lover makes me an official fur ball. With Molly coming into my life, and learning how beneficial dogs are in therapy, I am now a die-hard doggy peep. Ensminger provided a list of psychiatric disorders a service dog can be trained to help, including the following:

  1. Deep depression
  2. Bipolar
  3. Panic
  4. Anxiety
  5. Agoraphobia
  6. Social Phobia
  7. Post Traumatic Stress
  8. Obsessive Compulsive
  9. Dissociative Identity

For each of these, he lists the tasks a service dog can be trained to perform to help his/her master manage the particular disorder. Given the extensive list and our focus on PTSD, I will share his list for PTSD. The column on the left is the symptom of PTSD and the list on the right represents the task the dog is trained for to address that symptom. (pp.76-77)

Symptom of PTSD Task Service Dog Can Be Trained For
Distractions, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, dissociation, and flashbacks Tactile stimulation
Hallucinations Hallucination discernment
Feelings of isolation Cuddle and kiss
Hypervigilance Alert to presence of other people
Fear and startle response Environmental assessment
Fear and anxiety Turn on lights and safety check a room
Rumination and avoidance behaviors Staying with and focusing on handler
Nightmares Interrupt by waking up master; turn on lights for calming and reorienting; turn off lights for resuming sleep
Feelings of being threatened Create safe personal space

While Molly cannot turn the lights on and off, her trainer told us how to teach her this, if needed. She can perform all the other tasks, including a few of her own that may be instinctual to her breed. On top of this list, I found an interesting trainable task in the list for panic that Molly often does with William. “Lay across handler’s body” to keep him/her from shaking. Until I read Ensminger’s list, I could not understand why Molly does this. Panic attacks are common to PTSD so, she is just doing her job. I think I need to add a disclaimer to this trainable task—Molly crawling over William

Do not try this with your 130 lb. dog at home!

It could be hazardous to your health.

*Source: John J. Ensminger, Service and Therapy Dogs in American Society: Science, Law and the Evolution of Canine Caregivers Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing, 2010)

Post your Comments:

Have you trained your dog to perform a specific task to help you or a family member with a special condition? Please comment below.

Photo credits: pculbrethgraft

About the blogger

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