As we embark (pun intended) on another season, March not only marks the start of spring but also commemorates National Puppy Day on March 23. We all know dogs are a man’s best friend, so it is not surprising that 70% of U.S. households owned a pet in 2020, with dogs being the most popular, according to Statista.
Cuddling up with your four-legged, tail-wagging fur baby on the couch may instill a sense of calmness, companionship and even bring out your playful side. Petting a dog can cause your body to release oxytocin and decrease cortisol levels causing you to feel at ease. We all know dogs make us feel less stressed (that is when they aren’t chewing on our new favorite shoes), but can they do more? Can they also help veterans with mental health disorders?
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11–20% of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health disorder that can manifest symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and insomnia, and can severely impact one’s life. With high rates of PTSD affecting veterans, finding a solution to help symptoms may actually be right under our noses.
As research on service dogs continues to expand, an efficacy trial published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggests service dogs may be able to help veterans with PTSD. This study investigated the use of therapy dogs as a complementary, therapeutic intervention for military members and veterans with PTSD. The results revealed participants who received a service dog showed improved PTSD symptoms, decreased depression and higher social functioning over participants that received usual care but did not have a service dog. President Joe Biden also showed his support for the use of therapy dogs and implemented the PAWS act in September 2021, which supports nonprofit organizations that supply therapy dogs to veterans with PTSD.
Work Like a Dog
Nonprofits like Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) are also putting research into action by offering service training programs for pups and pairing faithful service canines with veterans and active duty military members who suffer from a physical or mental disability, completely free of charge. FSD also works with children and teens with autism and other neurocognitive disabilities as well as people with mobility challenges resulting from cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries and other conditions. These service dogs are helping heal veterans and other deserving communities by enabling them to regain their independence and improve their quality of life.
Not Just Pets
Service dogs are different from therapy dogs or pets. All service dogs are trained to work for people with disabilities and perform a specific task to assist their clients. Erin Conley, director of communications at Freedom Service Dogs adds, “Our service dogs can be trained to help reduce symptoms of PTSD for veterans by interrupting flashbacks, awakening the veteran from nightmares and creating space around the veteran to reduce their anxiety in crowds.”
These impressive skills will make you want to give these fluffy friends a pat on the head. However, Conley warns that service dogs are working even if they don’t appear to be. She says, “The best way to interact with any service dog is to do nothing.” Despite looking cute and fluffy, interrupting a working service dog can potentially put the owner in harm’s way. So as sad as it is to say, no petting these guys while they are on the clock.
Raise a Pup
If you don’t qualify for a service dog but are looking for a way to give back for National Puppy Day, Freedom Service Dogs always needs volunteers to raise and help train puppies in their homes before they undergo advanced training at FSD. They also need volunteers to foster dogs on the weekends, work onsite at the kennel, watch over puppies or just dog sit. However, if you are looking for a lifelong friend, FSD has some career-change dogs and retired service dogs available for adoption for the right fit.