Veterans returning from active duty face a variety of challenges, and service dogs can help many of these soldiers.
Service dogs are specialized canines that receive training to assist their owner. If the person is unable to perform certain tasks or struggles with stress or anxiety disorders, these furry friends know what to do to come to their master’s aid.
For a veteran who wishes to apply for veterinary health benefits, the first step is to meet with a mental health provider from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs(VA). The clinician and a care team will evaluate the applicant to assess whether a service dog is the best option.
Veterans that receive approval for veterinary health benefits can then contact an Assistance Dogs International (ADI)-accredited agency to apply for a service dog. There are several certified therapy dog organizations that have pups who are specially trained to assist veterans. Some of the approved groupsinclude:
- Hero Dogs, Inc
- Canines for Combat Veterans
- The Dog Tags Program
- Canine Companions for Independence
- Patriot Paws
- America’s VetDogs
Eligible service members can adopt a service dog that’s matched to their therapy needs. Some of the expenses involved in caring for the pooch is reimbursable through the VA.
Connecting veterans and service dogs may become easier. In February 2020, the House of Representatives passed The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act and sent it to the Senate for a vote. According to ranking republican, Phillip Roe of Tennessee, service dogs could provide, “powerful healing” by helping veterans, “combat these invisible illnesses and thrive in their civilian lives.”
Below are some ways service dogs can benefit our veterans:
1. Coping With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Veterans suffering from extreme PTSD symptoms could benefit from a psychiatric service animal. Some ways that these pooches assist their humansinclude:
- Performing room safety checks to put the person at ease
- Reminding the person to take breaks
- Alerting their owner that continuing an activity could trigger a flashback
- Sensing the onset of anxiety attacks or nightmares and taking actions to calm their master
- Alerting their master to trigger events that cause negative emotions
In addition to performing some of the above tasks,interacting with a canine companion could help diminish the severity of flashback episodes.
2. Decrease Reliance on Prescription Drugs
Service dogs can help veterans deal with pain and anxiety in ways that reduce their reliance on medications. Studies focusing on the effects of human-animal interactionsdemonstrate that patients experienced lowered levels of anxiety, stress, and pain when they had a canine companion. Regular contact stimulates a release of oxytocin, beta-endorphins, and other substancesthat help to moderate pain. The increase of these naturally occurring chemicals often means there’s less need for prescription pain killers and anti-anxiety drugs.
3. Ease Loneliness and Stress
The transition from military to civilian life can be a difficult and lonely experience for some veterans. They frequently struggle to connect with the people around them because others don’t understand their unique experiences. That’s where a service dog comes in.
According to theCenters for Disease Control (CDC), having a canine companion helps to decrease the feelings of loneliness and stress that a person feels. Dogs have a way of bonding with individuals and giving them a sense of belonging. Interaction with a furbaby also boosts the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the blood, and these chemicals help a person feel calm and relaxed which in turn reduces the individual’s stress level.
4. Reduce Social Anxiety
Having a four-footed friend by their side helps veterans overcome social anxiety. The presence of a four-footed friend eases the fear of being in public and keeps the soldiers calm by giving them a sense of safety. In several studies that assess the benefits to veterans of having a PTSD service dog, scientists interviewed soldiers and their caregivers. Participants reported that their canine assistants helped them:
- Enjoy improved emotional connectivitywith other people
- Increase their participation in the community
- Participate in social activities
- Feel more confident when interacting with people in a social context
5. Strengthen Personal Relationships
Veterans who return home often struggle to relate to civilian family members and friends. A service animal can help bridge the gap for their owners. In a qualitative studywhere a five-member research team interviewed six returning soldiers, the participants shared how service dogs helped improve connections with spouses, grandchildren, other family members, and friends.
- As these individuals learned how to bond with their furbaby, they gained the tools to build deeper relationships with the humans in their lives.
- In some cases, the service dog provided a barrier between their master and another person. The presence of the pooch helped to make an uncomfortable situation less stressful.
6. Transitioning From Service to Civilian Life
When our service members return home to enter civilian life, they can face a number of barriers. Our veterans often struggle to re-enter society and feel isolated and misunderstood. This can result in increased suicide rates, homelessness, substance abuse disorders, and other issues. According to Veteran Companion Animal Services(VCAS), having a service dog can help individuals overcome these obstacles.
One key way pups help their masters is by preventing them from self-isolation. Because their canine partner needs daily exercise, the caregiver must get outside. Dogs make great social icebreakers on these outings. People walking a dog are more likely to interact with others than those strolling by themselves.
7. Providing Physical Safety and Peace of Mind
As highly trained animals, service dogs provide assistance to their owners in many ways. They’re selected for their calm demeanor and steadfast temperament that helps them perform under pressure. Some of the things these canine companions do for their masters include:
- Standing between the veteran and an oncoming stranger as a physical barrier
- Providing a physical braceto help their owners maintain balance
- Giving their masters a sense of safety and confidence by remaining calm
In a series of interviews, service personnel also reported that their pups help them feel safe and secure in the home. The dogs provide mobility support when their masters navigate the stairs or suffer a dizzy spell. Additionally, veterans shared that having a canine companion makes them feel more relaxed and at ease in their homes because they know their pooch has their backs.
Service Dogs – A Life-Changer for Qualifying Veterans
Not all veterans will qualify for a service dog. For those that do, these canine teammates can be alife-changer. The confidence that their furbaby instills often frees retired soldiers to engage with friends and family without fear of an anxiety attack. Individuals with physical disabilities have a ready assistant to help them with daily tasks. There’s less fear of nightmares and flashbacks. These are just a few examples of how therapy canines help veterans enjoy life again.