Stray Dogs Helping Veterans With PTSD

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

service dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • K9s for Warriors boasts that, as of March 2019, they’ve rescued 1,014 dogs and 524 warriors; the warriors are veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury or sexual trauma as a result of military service
  • As the largest provider of service dogs for disabled U.S. veterans, K9s for Warriors has plans to expand to San Antonio, Texas, where they intended to move hundreds of dogs from shelters into their service dog program
  • K9s for Warriors welcomes up to 12 veterans to their headquarters every month, where they stay for three weeks, getting to know their service dog and learning how to work together
  • Research on the effects of K9s for Warriors’ services found that having a service dog reduced PTSD symptoms and improved quality of life in veterans while also helping to normalize cortisol (a stress hormone) levels

K9s for Warriors boasts that, as of March 2019, they’ve rescued 1,014 dogs and 524 warriors.1 The warriors are veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury or sexual trauma as a result of military service.

As the largest provider of service dogs for disabled U.S. veterans, they’ve got a reason to be proud, as their warrior-service dog pairs help to save each other. Now, the Florida-based organization has plans to expand to San Antonio, Texas, where they intended to move hundreds of dogs from shelters into their service dog program.

It’s a match made in heaven, as San Antonio has a surplus of large stray dogs in need of homes, and disabled veterans often benefit immensely from the companionship of a service dog.

"I think we're knocking out two birds with one stone here," San Antonio City Councilman Manny Pelaez told the Orlando Sentinel. "We're moving the dogs that need to be moved out of these shelters into the loving arms of veterans who need these kinds of partners. These dogs are going to be saving the lives of veterans, and these veterans are saving the lives of these dogs. That's symbiosis."2

Service Dogs and Veterans Save Each Other

K9s for Warriors welcomes up to 12 veterans to their headquarters every month, where they stay for three weeks, getting to know their service dog and learning how to work together. While it costs about $27,000 to train and place a service dog, the program is free to veterans.

K9s for Warriors does not use a specific breed of dog but rather rescues their service animals from shelters (some are also donated by the public). Breeds including Labradors, golden retrievers and mixed-breed dogs have all been a part of the program, but they must stand at least 24 inches tall to qualify.3

This is part of what makes their expansion to San Antonio — an area with an abundance of large dogs ready for adoption — so perfect. The dogs are fully trained when they meet their new owners, and are carefully matched up depending on the person’s health needs and lifestyle. Impressive benefits have been observed since the program started. The veterans entering the program take an average of 10 to 14 prescriptions, but 92% of them are able to reduce or eliminate them after training with their service dog.4

Research on the effects of K9s for Warriors’ service dogs for veterans with PTSD further found that having a service dog reduced PTSD symptoms and improved quality of life.5 What’s more, having a service dog also helped to normalize cortisol (a stress hormone) levels.6

“We found that military veterans with a service dog in the home produced more cortisol in the mornings than those on the waitlist,” Kerri Rodriguez, human-animal interaction graduate student at Purdue University, said in a news release. “This pattern is closer to the cortisol profile expected in healthy adults without PTSD. Having a service dog was also associated with less anger, less anxiety and better sleep.”7

Advertisement
​Get 43% Off on a GI Support for Cats and Dogs 3-Pack​Get 43% Off on a GI Support for Cats and Dogs 3-Pack

How Do Service Dogs Help Veterans With PTSD?

If a veteran is experiencing anxiety or stress, a service dog can be trained to notice the signs and step in to provide calm and comfort. They may wake a veteran up from nightmares and are also taught specific commands, including “block,” in which the dog stands in front of the veteran to provide for more personal space, and “cover,” in which the dog goes behind the veteran to “watch their back.”8

One graduate of the program explained of her service dog Faith, “When you get your dog, the bonding process begins immediately and that’s when the magic happens. Faith, a word that lost its meaning to me long ago, now walks by my side everywhere I go. My tomorrows don’t look so dark anymore and thinking about my future doesn’t turn my stomach into knots.”9

The bond between veterans with PTSD and their service dogs is typically extremely strong, even more so than between an average pet owner and their dog, according to a study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.10

“Military veterans felt extremely close to their service dogs,” the researchers explained, “ … with 40% of veterans choosing the highest degree of circular overlap between themselves and their dogs, and the mean for all veterans being 5.8 on a [seven]-point scale … pet owners have been found to have a mean of 3.5 and 3.9 out of 7 with their closest pet.”11

K9s for Warriors, which plans to build a kennel in San Antonio where it can house rescue dogs for their program, hopes to ultimately move 200 to 300 harder-to-place large dogs out of San Antonio’s shelters each year and into their veterans program.12 For those thinking of applying, do so sooner rather than later, as there can be up to an 18-month waiting list.

The program is also on the lookout for volunteers willing to do everything from cooking for the veterans to raising puppies and fostering adult dogs. K9s for Warriors is just one U.S. program pairing veterans with service dogs. There are many others like it, and such programs are likely to continue to grow, benefitting both dogs and people alike.