By Dr. Terry Morris, Executive Director of Vets To Vets United, Inc.
When veterans return from war, many of them face emotional and physical health challenges while transitioning back into civilian life. Stress, anger, aggression, depression, physiological limitations, and disabilities can lead to serious disruptions in their quality of life, for their family members, and for the community as a whole.
Many veterans discover that the support of a service dog can positively transform their lives by allowing them to live independently. In many cases, service dogs can be life-saving.
Benefits for the veteran and families
Many veterans return to the U.S. with serious injuries, often sustained in combat. They may haver chronic pain in multiple joints, missing limbs, spinal trauma, visual or hearing defects, ataxia (poor balance), muscular dystrophy, seizure disorders, cardiopulmonary disease, and a host of other conditions that limit their ability to live independently.
In addition to providing unconditional love and companionship for a veteran, there are many skills and tasks service dogs offer, including:
- Help with the transition to prosthetics
- Retrieving and carrying objects
- Pressing buttons and pulling open doors
- Accompanying the veteran in public places
- Responding to sounds for veterans who have hearing loss
- Turning lights on and off
- Assisting with tasks for veterans in a wheelchair
- Assisting with removal of clothing
When service members return home injured, it is often their families who provide care. Service dogs can play an important role in relieving some of that burden and allowing veterans to feel more independent.
The invisible wounds of war
Mental illness is disproportionately high among American veterans and can change the ways they think and process information. Some of the most common conditions include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and alcohol abuse. Psychiatric disorders after traumatic brain injury (TBI) are also frequent.
Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide; some believe that number may be higher. Suicide risk is higher in those with PTSD, and some studies link suicide risk in those with PTSD to distressing trauma memories, anger, poor control of impulses, suppressing feelings, and guilt related to combat.
Treatment for PTSD can be complicated, especially for those who also need treatment for chronic pain or other conditions. Many veterans are prescribed multiple drugs for their combined symptoms; some of these prescriptions, when taken in combination, have deadly consequences or at the very least, put veterans into a zombie-like state, rendering them unable to function. Doctors are now finding alternative ways to alleviate the symptoms of veterans suffering from multiple conditions without over-prescribing.
Dogs as life-savers
New research finds that dogs could be lifesavers. Countless veterans have testified that their service dogs have saved their lives. At a recent congressional hearing, a veteran pleaded with congress to allow the VA to support veterans with psychiatric service dogs, which is not currently happening—veterans’ benefits only cover service dogs for physical disabilities and visual impairment.
There are several benefits service dogs provide to alleviate some symptoms of PTSD. Dogs have the potential to draw out even the most isolated personality, and when the veteran uses praise to train the animal, emotional numbness is overcome. The veteran’s ability to communicate and be assertive (but not aggressive) also improves as a result of teaching the dog commands. The dogs can decrease hyper-vigilance, wake the vet from a nightmare, sweep a room for safety, and create a barrier between the vet and approaching people, all of which are common needs for vets with PTSD. Vets with service dogs often experience improvement in sleep.
Researchers are accumulating evidence that bonding with dogs has biological effects, such as elevated levels of oxytocin and serotonin—the feel-good hormones. Oxytocin decreases paranoia, while also improving the ability to trust and read facial expressions; this can negate some symptoms of PTDS.
Veterans have also reported that when their service dog picks up on an increase in heart rate prior to experiencing flashbacks or an anxiety episode, a simple alert will prevent the veteran from reaching that awful threshold.
There are no side effects from having a service dog to help ease symptoms of PTSD, unlike many medications, and the loving bond created between veteran and dog will last forever.
Building a positive social network
A positive social network is important for veterans in order to have a more seamless transition back into society. While support from friends and family may provide similar benefits, stressful interpersonal relationships may be detrimental. Studies have shown that animal ownership can make an individual feel more relaxed with decreased stress.
It’s also the case that social support provided by a dog can encourage more social interactions with people, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness. For example, one may be more receptive to talking to a stranger while out for a walk with their dog, as compared to walking alone—an interaction which may lead to establishing wonderful and meaningful relationships.
Dr. Terry Morris is the Executive Director of Vets To Vets United, Inc., a 501(c)3 veteran service/animal rescue nonprofit located in Durham, North Carolina. Vets to Vets United, Inc. engages local veterinarians, military veterans, canines, and community volunteers in an interactive program to address the health challenges that military veterans face when transitioning back into community life. Local veterinarians provide free or discount veterinary care for the veteran/pup teams.
Its mission is to reach out to military veterans suffering from loneliness, depression, PTSD, TBI, and physical disabilities—and partner them with service, therapy and/or emotional support dogs having been rescued and trained specifically following adoption by their veterans.