How dogs can help to treat PTSD
We’re all familiar with service dogs – amazing animals that help individuals suffering from visual, hearing or other losses to live more independently. However, less mention is made about those that are trained to help with mental disorders. Canine-loving nurse Elaine Smith began using therapy dogs in the 1970s, after she found that introducing them to individuals suffering from a physical illness or mental disorder reduced patients’ blood pressure, and they reported feeling happier and calmer for the experience. Recently, professionals working with war veterans returning from combat duty have similarly found that matching them with a therapy dog – or, better yet, reuniting them with their combat dog if they had one – is remarkably effective in alleviating the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that may arise from exposure to serious injury and/or from witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD most often manifests itself within three months of the trauma. Extremely high rates are reported in soldiers returning from combat in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan; the frequency of soldiers suffering from trauma during military combat is estimated to be between a third and a half. Symptoms may include recurring nightmares and waking “flashbacks” of the trauma, panic attacks, hypervigilance, numbing of emotions coupled with exaggerated outbursts of anger, detachment from loved ones, loss of interest in almost everything and suicidal thoughts. The US Veterans’ Administration has reported that one war veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. An estimated half of PTSD patients manage to recover within three months, but even then recurring episodes are possible for many years, and there is an increased risk of depression. So why do dogs have a therapeutic(and non-pharmaceutical) effect on those who’ve been injured in combat? Rick Yount at the Department of Defence in Bethesda, Maryland, has found that introducing a therapy dog to soldiers suffering from PTSD resulted in an increase in impulse control, a reduction in symptoms of stress and depression, an increase in the ability to express appropriate emotions, better quality sleep – and even a decrease in the need for pain medication. These remarkable dogs learn to soothe sufferers if they expe-rience a panic attack or calm them if they suddenly become angry, thus helping to regulate emotions. Oxytocin is released when the sufferer strokes their dog, conferring a sense of safety and wellbeing. Most important, having an animal to care for, one that in turn cares for the individual, encourages the re-establishment of a routine and a re-awakening of a sense of purpose. Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist, author of The Key To Calm. Watch her give advice on Telegraph Video.