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Healing Companions: Psychiatric Support Dogs for PTSD and Accessible Online Training

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Elizabeth Linden is a retired special education teacher with 25 years of experience. She has a bachelor’s degree in Special Education and a master’s degree in Health Psychology. Liz has been an advocate for the educational needs of special education

students throughout her career as well as an advocate for her own medical needs as a person with a rare headache disorder.  Liz is also a Senior Anchor with The Power of the Patient Project, and her interviews are featured throughout our digital library.

By: Elizabeth Linden

According to community surveys in the United States, it has been found that at any given time, approximately 0.5% to 3.8% of the population experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Moreover, it is estimated that around 7.3% of individuals will develop PTSD at some point in their lifetime. While people with PTSD commonly receive treatment through medication, therapy, or other therapeutic approaches, there is a growing interest in Animal Assisted Therapy as an alternative option for individuals with PTSD.

The Origins of Animals' Assistance in Coping with PTSD? 

When Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first defined in the 1980s in the DSMII, the condition was known to apply to veterans who experienced psychological stress as a result of combat in the Vietnam War. While the origins are not well documented, animal-assisted therapy gained recognition as it was noticed that animals.


The Popularity of Animal Assisted Therapy for PTSD Patients Soars

Over the years, clinicians closely observed their patients and realized that PTSD extended beyond veterans to include individuals who had undergone various traumatic events. In essence, PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced trauma. This expanded understanding of the disorder revealed that the actual number of people with PTSD is significantly higher than initially assumed in the 1980s. Consequently, there emerged a pressing need for effective treatments. Recognizing the success of animal-assisted therapy in working with veterans who had PTSD, doctors and patients alike began considering its potential as a therapeutic approach for a broader range of individuals affected by PTSD.

Empowering PTSD Treatment with Psychiatric Support Dogs

While therapy and medicine serve their place in the treatment of PTSD, many people with the disorder have noticed the comfort their animals provide them in reducing symptoms of anxiety.  Many have not learned that they can train their furry companions to do even more tasks to combat their symptoms. Furthermore, they can learn to train their pet themselves on a lower budget. Many people still believe they need to spend thousands of dollars to have their dogs expertly trained or spend years on a waiting list from charitable foundations that assist in finding trained service animals. This provides an unfortunate obstacle for those who have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that would allow for the use of Psychiatric Service Dogs. Fortunately, this is not the case. Depending on the type of training needed, the ability of the dog handler, and the temperament of the dog, it is possible for some people with PTSD to train their Psychiatric Service Dogs. 

Therapeutic Power of Psychiatric Support Dogs in Action- Teaching Commands

When I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD several years ago, I found great comfort in having my dog, Charlie, by my side in times of crisis. Charlie is an 8-year-old Bichon Frise and, although he is not a typical breed of a Psychiatric Service Animal, Charlie has been immensely helpful in helping me manage my symptoms. Although each with PTSD has unique needs, I often struggle to stay present and grounded and present during PTSD flashbacks.  During a PTSD flashback, my dog sits on my lap, applying deep pressure therapy. The weight of his body helps bring me back into the room and out of my imagination where I am replaying the traumatic experience. Other tasks he performs are licking, pawing, and nudging to get my attention when I am very anxious. Anything that brings me out of my thoughts and into one of my five senses helps ground me into the present.


Selecting the Right Dog

Choosing a dog with a calm and stable temperament is crucial for service dog work.

Breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds are commonly used due to their trainability and suitability for service dog tasks but any dog can be a Psychiatric Service Dog as long as they are well-behaved towards people and other dogs. 

Basic Training Principles

  1. Alerting to anxiety or panic attacks: Your dog can be trained to detect early signs of anxiety or panic attacks, allowing them to take the necessary steps to manage your symptoms and find a safe environment.

  2. Provide deep pressure therapy: Your dog can apply gentle pressure or lie across your body during moments of distress to provide a grounding effect. 

  3. Create physical space: Your dog can create a buffer zone by standing or sitting between you and others, providing a sense of personal space and security in crowded, overwhelming situations. 

  4. Conducting room searches: If you experience hyper-vigilance in new environments, your dog can be trained to search rooms for potential threats or hazards, providing a sense of safety and reassurance.

  5. Interrupting repetitive or self-destructive behaviors: You can train your dog to interrupt or redirect self-harming behaviors. Your dog can learn to nudge or paw at you to redirect your attention.


How to Train Your Dog

For some reason, I didn’t have to train my dog for some tasks that helped me ground in reality. My dog seems to sense that I am having a panic attack and sits on my chest. When I am calm, he does not engage in this behavior. It is already known that dogs have a keen sense of smell that helps them detect any changes in a person’s behavior and physiology. Some even have an intuitive ability to detect panic attacks as may be the case with my dog. Whatever is happening, it is working for me. Even if your dog does not intuitively know how to respond, many dogs, with training, can understand and respond appropriately to their owners' needs.  

Training your dog for any of the desired behaviors above is similar to how you would you would train them for more basic commands like sit, stay or lay down. For each, it requires a verbal command, hand gesturing and lots of rewarding successive approximations to desired behaviors. 

It easy to find online classes from various organizations that won’t break the bank but, by law, you do not have to pay for any courses to have legally take your Psychiatric Service Dog anywhere. You are allowed to be your own dog’s handler. However, your dog must be able to follow commands consistently, be very well behaved and not lunge or growl at other people or dogs. Your dog also needs to follow your commands while in distracting environments. 

Here are some online classes that are inexpensive but unverified regarding their quality. Again, they are not required by law. Also posted below are online classes that are relatively low in cost when compared to professional training and some youtube classes that are completely free. 

  1. Service Dog Academy

  2. Compass Key

  3. E-Training for Dogs

  4. Doggy U

  5. Animal Behavior Institute

  6. WAGS 4 Kids

  7. USA Service Dogs


Felicia Mikaela

Lisa Gallegos - Dog Training


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