The Benefits of Service Dogs for Veterans with PTSD
On Veterans Day we pay tribute to the men and women who have served our country through their brave and dedicated military service. Armistice Day, now recognized as Veterans Day in the United States, was first celebrated in 1919 after World War I. It was after WWI that the first “service dogs” were trained and began to assist veterans who had sustained physical injuries like blindness or suffered behavioral trauma referred to as “shell shock.”
Today there are 22 million veterans living in the United States and 16.5 million of those veterans served their country during times of war. The behavioral trauma referred to as “shell shocked” in the first two World Wars is now a condition defined by The National Institute of Health (NIH) as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
NIH estimates that PTSD affects 7.7 million American adults and, of those, approximately 3 million are veterans who served in the Vietnam War or the Gulf Wars. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common event leading to the development of PTSD is combat exposure. Complications from PTSD may increase one’s risk for suicidal thoughts and actions. A startling July 2018 report from the Veterans Administration estimated that the suicide rate for Veterans was 16 per day.
PTSD destroys the lives of our veterans and their families. Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis to introduce vital legislation appropriately titled The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act, HR4764 which has gained the bipartisan support of over 200 cosponsors. HR4764 will provide $25,000 grants for eligible organizations to train and pair service dogs with a veteran. Virtually every veterans’ advocacy organization supports this legislation.
At the 2016 congressional hearing on HR4764 Steve Feldman, the Executive Director of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI), gave the following testimony, “Veterans with PTSD paired with service dogs demonstrated a better ability to cope with flashbacks and anxiety attacks; reduced frequency of nightmares and less overall sleep disturbance; lower anxiety, depression and anger; higher levels of companionship and social reintegration; increased overall psychological wellbeing and higher levels of life satisfaction and resilience.”
Veteran Tammie Gillums had been an Army human resources officer, a job she did not expect would expose her to trauma during her tour in Kabul, Afghanistan. She was wrong a few times over, with one event being a suicide blast that threw her off her chair during duty in a guard tower. Seared into her mind was the image of the bomber’s detached head. Giles came home in 2008 with crippling migraines. She couldn’t sleep or concentrate. She started lengthy therapy sessions with a VA psychologist and psychiatrist and at one point was on a half dozen prescriptions simultaneously. She stayed home whenever possible.
One thing made a difference, she said: Cross. K9s for Warriors placed Cross, a black lab mix, with Gillums who was initially skeptical because she had never owned a dog. Now it has been months since she has needed any medication. Cross jumps on the bed to wake her from restless dreams. After a decade of dropping out of classes because of panic attacks and anxiety Gillums for the first time completed a semester of courses at the community college where she is studying American Sign Language for an associate degree in deaf studies.
Her relationship with Cross, she said “is some type of magic.”
At Petland we know the effect pets can have on us and we acknowledge the life-saving impact dogs have on our veterans. Petland is proud to contribute to Heartland Canines for Veterans, a 501c3 that pairs highly trained service dogs with veterans. Petland sponsors the training cost of one dog per year. In addition, stores across the country also support other veterans’ service dog organizations.
Veterans Day is a time to reflect on the incomprehensible sacrifices and astounding courage demonstrated by our veterans through their military service. It is also a day when we can take action to both support legislation like the Paws Act and donate generously to professional service dog schools and reputable veteran’s service dog organizations like Heartland Canines for Veterans to help provide more well-trained service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD.
Ed Sayres, Director of Animal Welfare Education, Petland Inc.
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