It isn’t uncommon for someone with Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD) to get a dog. PTSD is one of the few mental
illnesses triggering anxiety and other symptoms in response to
external events. Real life triggers create their own set of
unique challenges and opportunities. We exist in a world full of
everyday anxiety which triggers many PTSD symptoms.
For someone needing assistance physically or emotionally,
man’s best friend not only provides companionship, but he also
improves the quality of life. When considering assistance dogs
decide whether to hire a dog trainer, work with service dog
organizations such as America’s Vet Dogs or
Military Working Dogs if you are a veteran, or decide to train
your canine on your own.
Benefits of Dogs for PTSD
The goal of any service dog, PTSD-trained or not, is to help the
person suffering from symptoms find better coping mechanisms to
return to life more independently. Dogs are trained to recognize
and assist with memory triggers, avoidance systems, mood
assistance, and more.
Assistance dogs are trainable to provide support in the
four categories of symptoms of PTSD:
Training for Intrusive Memories Symptoms
One of the most common conditions a PTSD service dog assists
with is helping owners during intense flashbacks, nightmares, and
panic attacks wrought with anxiety and confusion. A PTSD service
dog is trained to recognize signs of these traumatic mental returns
and then interrupt the cycle.
Trained dog’s behavior breaks this mental cycle with simple
things like a nudge of their nose or touch from their paw that
comforts their owner’s stress and pulls their owner back. The
goal is to halt the progression of the memory or nightmare.
Training for Avoidance Symptoms
Isolation and avoidance are the natural coping mechanisms of
PTSD sufferers. The unpredictability of the world outside combined
with PTSD sets of triggers and exacerbates anxiety to do anything,
including leaving the house. Trained PTSD service dog behavior is
aimed to help manage anxiety driven triggers and to provide support
when they do occur.
PTSD service dog behavior is trained to support the individual
triggers of the owner. Trained behaviors include deeming a path
safe such as investigating around a corner for danger and then
nudging or pawing to alert the owner of a trigger. A PTSD dog could
indicate to an owner that it is time to leave by walking to a door
and pulling on a leash tethered to open it. Often these service
dogs are seen sitting in front of the owner to create a bubble of
space and line of defense.
Owners find that the security of knowing they are being watched
and supported gives them the comfort to return to the occurrences
of daily life.
Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood
Feelings of hopelessness, emotional numbness, and negative
thoughts are often overwhelming when suffering from a stress
disorder. A connection to a dog is one of the purest forms of
joy. The unconditional love of a dog for their owner brings
feelings of worthiness when everything else seems bleak. Owning a
dog, in and of itself, help return positive thoughts and emotions
into a distressed person’s life.
Training a dog to hug or touch his owner provides physical
contact necessary to basic human existence. Additional trained dog
behavior increases the level of assistance a dog provides.
Changes in Physical and Emotional Reactions
Substance abuse is another common coping mechanism for those
struggling with PTSD. Service dogs offer support in recovery by
providing a new coping mechanism to replace the old. Bonding with
and caring for a dog is an outlet when dealing with strong
emotions. A dog’s need to be walked outside forces the owner
outside to interact with others and reduce isolation at home.
Talking about problems is a proven way to overcome guilt and
shame. Studies have shown that having a dog present encourages
owners to open up and share. Assistance dogs are excellent
companions that assist in coping with emotional reactions and help
the owner begin to change their responses to situations.
Training for Additional Benefits
Assistance dogs aid in all areas of life. In addition to
supporting PTSD symptoms, they are there to help with other
PTSD-like symptoms and assisting in making life just a bit easier.
Medication management for someone with PTSD can be tricky,
especially with many medications taken at different times of the
day. Service dogs are conditioned to react to a sound that then
alerts the dog to notify his owner that it is time to take action.
Service dogs will retrieve medicine when alerted by a specific
sound and bring it as the reminder that it is time to take that
Safety during a panic attack is an issue when the attack has
become overwhelming. Service dogs are trained to sense rising in
breathing, body temperature and blood pressure, suggesting an
oncoming panic attack to then help redirect their owners.
Types of Assistance Dogs
Service, emotional support, and therapy dog titles are often
used interchangeably when referring to a canine support animal.
Each of these terms applies to very different levels of assistance
and protection the dog provides to his owner.
PTSD Service Dog – Task Oriented
Service dogs assist with tasks that the owner cannot complete
themselves due to mental disabilities such as anxiety disorder,
PTSD, or physical disabilities such as traumatic brain injury.
Specific tasks include fetching water or medication for anxiety,
alerting to a PTSD induced panic attack, and tugging open doors to
aid people with disabilities.
PTSD service dogs are the formal, hands-off dogs that you often
see wearing a vest. Hands-off means that no one should approach and
try to pet or play with the dog while he is on duty. They are
working dogs trained specifically to their owner and their
owner’s needs. A working service dog is allowed access to all
ground locations under federal protection of the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA).
Dogs International (ADI) offers additional information
regarding the requirements for an Internationally recognized
Emotional Support Animals – Comfort-Oriented
Emotional support animals provide comfort to owners who suffer
from emotional or mental illnesses. A well-trained canine uses
touch in a variety of ways to soothe overwhelming feelings, bond,
and provide companionship to owners. The dog also gives them a
sense of purpose and belonging.
While an emotional support dog does not receive the same ADA
protected access as a service dog it is prescribed by a licensed
therapist and does have many protections under state and federal
An emotional support dog is protected under the Fair Housing Act
and is exempt to pet policies. This means a landlord can’t evict
you if you get a lawful prescription for an emotional support
animal. Additionally, an emotional support dog is allowed to fly
in the cabin of an airplane with his owner in accordance with the
Therapy Dog – Group-Oriented
Therapy dogs make frequent visits to schools, hospitals, and
senior care facilities helping those with psychiatric or
emotionally challenging conditions reduce stress and anxiety.
Therapy dogs provide comfort in settings such as hospitals, senior
facilities, airports, colleges, and anywhere else groups of people
could benefit from mental health aid.
As for non-working dogs, therapy dogs are not granted ADA
protected access to areas prohibited to dogs including restaurants
and grocery stores. Check with your local state and government to
determine laws regarding access.
Which Type of Assistance is Right
When deciding which level of support is right for you, consider
how strictly you would like to adhere to training. Service dogs
dedicate themselves to their owner and owner’s needs; they spend
most of their time working. An emotional support dog is a companion
not focused on specific aid tasks.
Is Certification Required
Service, emotional support, and therapy dogs are not required by
the ADA to have a certification. Additionally, the dogs are not
required to be identifiable by a vest, tag, or harness. However,
there are times when certification will be necessary to ensure
everyone is safe.
Service dog ADA protection prohibits facilities from requesting
documented certification, details of the disability the service dog
aids in, or require the dog demonstrate a task. The facility’s
staff is allowed to ask two questions to determine service dog
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Flying with assistance dogs is not covered by Federal ADA Laws.
Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) sets forth the requirements and
rights of flying with a PTSD service dog.
While certification is not required in all instances of PTSD dog
use, all assistance dogs must be registered and licensed according
to the local city or state requirements.
Assistance Dog Requirements
Whether training a service, emotional support, or therapy dog
basic guidance and requirements apply:
The Dog Trainer and Grooming
Grooming is not only essential to the health and well-being of
the dog, but it is also an essential requirement of assistance dogs
when in society. The requirement behind assistance training is
that the dog not interfere with the day to day operations occurring
in public. Regular grooming ensures the dog is clean, free of
offensive odors, and decreased shedding.
The Dog Trainer and Basic Obedience
Basic obedience skills are a must when training assistance dogs.
Without necessary obedience skills, the dog is not considered an
assistance dog and will be asked to leave public places. Ensure
that your dog is under control with training on basic commands such
as sit, stay, heel, lie down, and come.
The Dog Trainer and Elimination
Nothing will get a dog kicked out of public places as fast as
eliminating in the wrong area. Ensure training includes
housebreaking. Assistance dogs should never use a building as a
restroom. Training assistance dogs to eliminate on command
ensures elimination will occur in the proper location at the
The Dog Trainer and Manners
All assistance dogs require training. Training dogs must be well
behaved in public, remain under control at all times, and not cause
a disturbance ensures they will be considered service animal. Place
focus on manners such as not sniffing or bothering other people.
Training must include avoiding aggressive behavior. Any dog that
barks, growls, or shows teeth will not be considered an assistance
TRAINING SERVICE DOGS FOR PTSD
PTSD service dogs require additional training beyond the basics.
Emotional support and therapy dogs will provide comfort in
situations where service dogs must provide aid.
PTSD service dogs must be able to complete specific tasks which
aid the owner with disabilities caused by panic attacks, anxiety,
or other stress. Training a service dog to complete specific tasks
which assist people with disabilities begins with dog behaviors
often referred to as being a “Good Citizen Dog,” which are
later expanded upon to support PTSD needs.
Positive Reinforcement for Training
The basis of all training is an effective method of positive
reinforcement. Positive reinforcement focuses on rewarding the
dog’s behavior you want and ignoring the behavior you do not
want. Training is begun once the dog has reached six-months-old
and at any age after that.
Positive reinforcement is offered in the form of a treat, a
clicker, praise, or any combination of the above. The goal is to
show the dog the behavior you want, offer a reinforcement, and
encourage the dog to repeat the action on their own. Reward when
the dog performs the behavior on their own.
Nudge and Paw Training
The nudge/paw is used to alert or comfort the owner. The
assistance dog trains to respond to PTSD-like symptoms alerts to
the owner’s behavior and, responds with an assisting action.
When considering a panic attack, as an example, PTSD service
dogs will nudge or paw the owner at the first sign of symptoms to
stop or shorten the attack.
A nudge allows for a gentle method of interacting with the
owner, whereas pawing leads to a stronger method of gaining
attention. Training each of these methods begins the same. Start
with a treat and place it where the dog can smell it.
After placing the treat in or under the palm of the hand begin
Nudge: Wait until the dog investigates the hand with his
nose. Praise or click the behavior and offer the treat. Repeat
until this becomes a natural action.
Paw: Use the hand not holding the treat to lift the
dog’s paw into your palm. Praise or click while offering the
treat. Repeat until this is his conditioned response.
Once a dog understands the basic command of nudge or paw it is
time to incorporate real world situations. Identify symptoms that
indicate an upcoming attack and begin performing them when
beginning the desired behavior training. For example, shuffle your
feet as you extend the treat. With consistent positive
enforcement training, the dog will associate the shuffle as a
trigger to begin the behavior.
Training a service dog to persist until stopped is just as
important as training to begin the behavior. Add a command, verbal
or physical, each time the behavior is rewarded. Delay the reward
and command, while continuing to encourage the dog to paw or nudge,
to ensure the dog persists until the owner no longer needs
Bark and Speak Training
A valuable safety task is training PTSD service dogs to bark for
higher levels of alert. If the owner is in the middle of a panic
attack and therefore not alert to the surroundings a PTSD service
dog will stay tuned to the surroundings. When a fire alarm goes
off, the service dog will bark until the owner responds.
To begin training for bark or speak tasks:
- Encourage your dog to bark by exciting your dog or ringing the
doorbell. Praise and reward the bark while adding a verbal command
such as “speak.” Repeat this until your dog no longer needs
- When the dog begins to understand the association, speak the
command. Reward the bark and associated behavior with praise or a
- Add the command that will trigger the dog while working. Extend
the time before you respond to train the dog to be persistent until
he has your attention.
Retrieve and Fetch Training
A PTSD service dog training option is to teach fetching an item
the owner is unable to grab. The opportunities are endless and
are dependent on the needs of the owner.
If the service dog will help with medication management:
- Begin with the object you would like retrieved, such as a
medicine bottle, and a treat.
- Start a game of fetch. Throw the object and say the command
you would like to use.
- Reward the completed behavior.
- Once fetch is established, move the game into reality.
- Place the medicine bottle on the counter.
- Point to the item.
- Say the command.
- Reward the completed behavior.
- When the dog knows where to locate the item practice the
command from another room.
Tug and Pull Training
Training the dog to tug or pull will aid in more than just
pulling a wheelchair. If the owner is in a situation that the dog
recognizes as hazardous, the dog tugs the leash and pull his owner
to the door.
To train a service dog to tug or pull:
- Begin with a rope and a treat.
- Encourage the dog to take the end you are not holding.
- Pull gently.
- Reward when the dog pulls back.
- Add in a verbal or physical command.
PTSD Dog Breeds
Dogs and PTSD is a form of evidence-based treatment designed to
return the ability to function in stress and anxiety-laden
situations after a traumatic event. Once the level of assistance is
determined, it is time to consider dog breeds.
Service dogs dedicate themselves to their owner, their owner’s
stress and anxiety symptoms, and their owner’s needs. Any dog
breed is an option to for an assistance dog as long as it is well
behaved, controlled in public, and well groomed. However, some dog
breeds have innate capabilities that provide additional benefits
Consider individual needs and chose a breed based on which
combinations of size, temperament, alertness, and intelligence will
best provide assistance.
Service Dog Breeds
When selecting service dog breeds begin with choosing dogs known
for their loyalty and..
Source: FS – TheDogTrainingSecret
Your Dog, PTSD and Getting Help