Pawsitively Powerful: 7 Ways Therapy and Service Dogs Help Veterans
Guest Blog Post WRITTEN BY Jennifer Grant
Animals assist humans in a myriad of ways, all worthy of the title of “Man’s Best Friend.” They also offer a variety of therapeutic benefits for many people in different occupations and stages of life.
Veterans, those who protect the majestic American flag and serve the citizens of our country, are one group of people who benefit from the help of therapy-trained and service dogs.
Trained therapy dogs have been proven to have significant and long-lasting benefits for veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from their service in the armed forces. However, even veterans who do not suffer from PTSD can benefit from the companionship service dogs provide.
These are the top seven ways that veterans benefit from working with canine therapy and service animals.
1. Emotional Healing and Wellness
Therapy dogs can provide emotional benefits to veterans. Having a dog can help suppress unwanted symptoms of PTSD, such as hypervigilance, agitation, and restlessness.
It can also help decrease emotional numbness, through the development of bonding relationships. Dogs can also be an excellent source of emotional support and, thereby, decrease symptoms of anxiety.
The small joys that come with dog ownership can help veterans connect with feelings of positivity, happiness, and inner peace. Plus, it encourages positive social interaction with others.
Think of a happy, smiling puppy bounding up to the door to greet you after a long day at work or school followed by a grueling commute. Dogs give veterans something to look forward to in life—a worthy companion who will be loyal and unwaveringly faithful through rough times as well as good ones.
2. Positive Redirection
One of the primary roles of therapy dogs for veterans is to provide a distraction from negative feelings that can suddenly arise, such as stimuli that cause anxiety or hypervigilance in veterans with PTSD.
PTSD therapy dogs are trained to perceive when their owners are experiencing these sorts of negative feelings and distract them through redirection.
Commonly, this happens through the dog cueing the owner to pet them. Other dogs may just sit when they perceive their owner is escalating, causing the owner to become aware of this and use coping strategies and techniques to deal with their emotions, such as reorientation, deep breathing and grounding activities.
Dogs also provide affirmation of reality for veterans with PTSD, reminding the owners to their surroundings and acting as a reminder they are not in real danger.
3. Reducing Isolation
Having a dog encourages social activity, integration or reintegration into society. Even chatting with other dog walkers or pet parents at the dog park can be an essential source of social activity and normalcy for an isolated veteran.
Having a dog is almost an instant conversation starter with people across ages, races, and gender differences. Very few people can resist the charms of dogs and their adorable antics.
4. Relieving Symptoms of Depression
It is an unfortunate fact that veterans are significantly more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. Dogs can relieve these symptoms in several ways. They are an instant source of comfort, and they help ground veterans in their present situation.
Many veterans report that owning a dog gives them a sense of responsibility, in the best way possible. This aspect of dog ownership helps combat the boredom and apathy that can so commonly accompany depression. After all, owning a dog means you need to leave the house multiple times a day, every day, which has other positive health effects as well.
5. Unconditional Love and Acceptance
Many veterans report being able to bond with their dogs in a way they are unable to with other humans, especially in the early months when they return from service.
As one veteran noted, he appreciated that he did not have to explain himself to the dog or talk about his emotions. His therapy dog seemed like it instinctively knew how he was feeling and helped provide comfort and a feeling of safety when needed.
6. Improve Happiness and Overall Well-Being
There has been a demonstrated link between having a dog as a pet and the release of oxytocin in the brain. When you pat your dog, play with them, or even just talk to them as you go about your daily life, this essential neurochemical is released in your brain, causing feelings of peace, joy, happiness, and contentment.
Having more oxytocin released on a regular basis can improve your wellness, self-perception, and overall moods, which has a strong impact on quality of life.
7. Exercise and Health
It is no surprise to dog owners that sharing a home with a canine companion has a positive effect on mental and physical health, resulting in a feeling of well-being.
Though fitness is rarely a problem for most veterans, sometimes it can be challenging to make the time to get some form of exercise every day.
Dogs require exercise daily—ideally, at least one half-hour walk once or twice a day. Getting out of the house and walking around the neighborhood is good for all of us, but it’s especially helpful for veterans who often suffer from isolation.
Increasingly, the positive role that specially trained therapy and service dogs improve the mental health and quality of life of combat veterans is becoming recognized by both the military and medical communities. As service dog programs for veterans expand, their excellent outcomes become more well-known, and more people can access their valuable services.
This year, do your part to support programs that pair canine companions with veterans. They make a lasting impact on both people and the rescue dogs that serve them.
Jennifer Grant a devoted military wife, mother of two, and American History buff. She blogs for Americanflags.com, a top provider of American Flags based out of New York State.