PTSD Service Dogs: Leveraging
The PTSD brain generates fear and alertness even when there's no actual danger. Dr. Kelly Skelton, a psychiatrist who is overseeing a Veteran's Affairs service dog study at in Atlanta VA, says that the theory is that that service dogs "can serve as a bridge to get them past that initial fear. That way, they can get out more and engage in therapy so they can eventually free themselves of that excessive fear response."
One commonly reported side-effect for people living with anxiety and fear is a tendency to isolate oneself. Many of the symptoms associated with PTSD make going outside difficult and leaving the home daunting due to the potential of triggers. People with PTSD might only feel comfortable going places or running errands with a spouse or close friend. This is one of the main areas in which service dogs dramatically improve the quality of life for both those living with the disorder as well as close friends and family; a service dog can fulfill the same role as the close friend or family and the dog can be taken with them 24/7. This can lead to feelings of freedom and increase the extent to which the individual is comfortable and confident going to the mall, grocery shopping - everywhere.
In addition to accompanying the handler outside the home, there are numerous tasks and therapeutic functions that a service dog may be trained to provide. Typically this training focuses on leveraging the dog's natural senses to help the handler interpret the world around them.
With PTSD, a person can't always trust their own senses. Relying on a service dog's incredible hearing, smell, and other senses, allows the handler to be reassured that the environment they are currently in is not dangerous.
If you listen carefully to an old-school TV that has a picture tube, you can hear a high-pitched whine at the very upper end of your high-frequency hearing, which is about 16,000 Hz. Dogs hear up to 50,000 Hz. We would have to add 48 extra notes on the high end of a piano to hear that high. This measure of a dog's incredible hearing help explain why some dogs hate some vacuum cleaners and power tools - these types of equipment may have rapidly rotating shafts that can produce intensely loud shrieks - but the noise is so high that we can't even hear it.
A dog's hearing is also considerably more sensitive to quiet noises than our hearing is. We can hear down to 0 decibels, but a dog can hear down to an amazing -10 decibels...that's minus ten decibels.
A dog's sense of smell is incredible, too. When James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., escaped from the maximum security Missouri State Penitentiary while serving another crime, a service dog named Buttercup tracked him from his scent trail, finding him his hiding place seven miles away.
Service dogs have also been used to find where pipelines have been leaking. In the first time service dogs were used for this purpose, at the request of gas company, trainer Glen Johnson inspected the first 20 miles of a natural gas pipeline in the Province of Ontario in Quebec - and found leaks, later confirmed, at a distance of 40 feet underground.
Because of the dog's increased range of hearing and smell, in conjunction with the relationship between the service dog and its handler, service dogs provide an excellent source of real-time information about potential threats in the environment. For instance, if the handler suddenly goes on high-alert because of a noise at night or upon entering a dark room, they can double-check their responses against that of their service dog. Unless the dog's hackles (neck hair) are up, or the dog is wild-eyed and alerting to danger, the handler can relax and remain calm in an unthreatening situation. Moreover, as mentioned previously, with PTSD, it's easy to feel alone because of the trauma one has experienced in the past. But with a service dog, the handler is not alone - they can go out in public with their service dog (many children have their dogs with them 90% of the time they are not in school). Having a constant companion provides positive feedback in situations that might otherwise be stressful for those suffering from PTSD. These dogs also reduce the stigma of PTSD; it provides the handler an opportunity to interact with the public in a positive and supportive way.