How Service Dogs Are Saving Veterans' Lives

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

service dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research continues to accumulate that service dogs can benefit veterans with PTSD
  • Significant differences were found among military members and veterans with PTSD who had a service dog compared to those who did not; reductions in depression and a higher quality of life and social functioning were reported among the service dog group
  • Service dogs alerting veterans of increasing anxiety and providing physical contact were the most important and most often used trained tasks in a typical day
  • Military veterans with PTSD who had a service dog experienced higher levels of resilience and companionship, and lower levels of anger, social isolation and work impairment
  • A significant association was found between having a service dog and lower PTSD symptom severity; this study was particularly important because it replicated existing findings using the largest sample size to date

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common in military veterans, affecting about 15% of those who served in the Vietnam War, 12% of those who served in the Gulf War and up to 20% of those who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.1

Military sexual trauma, including sexual assault and sexual harassment, is another common cause of PTSD in the military, which can occur even during peacetime.2

After experiencing a traumatic event, PTSD symptoms may appear anywhere from a month to years later. Recurrent, distressing memories are common, as are upsetting nightmares. Those affected may try to avoid places or activities that may trigger a memory of the traumatic event, and “arousal symptoms,” such as being easily startled, always feeling on guard and angry outbursts, may occur.

Changes in thinking and mood, including feelings of detachment from friends and family, hopelessness, emotional numbness and memory problems, can also be part of PTSD, leading to disruptions in daily life and the ability to work and maintain close relationships.3

Treatment can be challenging and, conventionally, often involves psychotherapy and medications, but many of those affected continue to experience symptoms even after completing treatment. Service dogs, however, have proven to be invaluable for PTSD patients, offering both mental and physical benefits.

In one pilot study of 30 veterans with PTSD, those who completed a service dog training program had significant decreases in PTSD symptoms as well as fewer intra/interpersonal difficulties associated with psychological trauma,4 and a host of additional research has added further support that service dogs can benefit veterans with PTSD.

Three Ways Service Dogs Help Veterans With PTSD

Maggie O’Haire, associate professor of human-animal interaction in the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine, has conducted multiple studies that shed light on why service dogs are so beneficial.

“We continue to hear that service dogs are saving veterans’ lives,” O’Haire said in a news release. “Our research is intended to measure this. We see that the dogs are helping, but now the challenge is answering how exactly service dogs are helping and what to expect once you have one of them in your household. Service dogs for PTSD are not a cure, but for some veterans they can offer benefits that make PTSD symptoms easier to manage.”5

In one of O’Haire’s studies, published in 2018, significant differences were found among military members and veterans with PTSD who had a service dog compared to those who did not. Reductions in depression and a higher quality of life and social functioning were reported among the service dog group.6 Additional studies by O’Haire and colleagues have revealed three additional ways service dogs may help.7

1. Disrupting Episodes of Anxiety — Service dogs can be trained to complete a number of tasks, such as picking up on cues veterans display when they’re feeling distressed or anxious and then nudging, pawing or licking them so they shift their focus to the dog. Service dogs can also recognize when a person is having a nightmare and wake them up.

While in public, service dogs may also provide a sense of security to a veteran, such as by standing behind them to “watch their back” or looking the opposite way while in a crowded space.

O’Haire’s research, which was conducted in partnership with K9s for Warriors, the largest provider of service dogs for disabled U.S. veterans, revealed that service dogs alerting veterans of increasing anxiety and providing physical contact were the most important and most often used trained tasks in a typical day.8

Overall, veterans depended on trained service dog tasks to help them an average of 3.16 times a day.9

2. Improving Resilience and Relationship Satisfaction — PTSD can be “corrosive” to family relationships, but this is another area where service dogs excel. Military veterans with PTSD who had a service dog experienced higher levels of resilience and companionship, and lower levels of anger, social isolation and work impairment compared to veterans with PTSD who were on a waitlist for a service dog.

Veterans’ partners also reported improvements, including in family relationships, veteran functioning and their own quality of life.10

3. Lower PTSD Symptom Severity — In another study, involving 186 military members and veterans who had either received a PTSD service dog or were on a waitlist for one, a significant association was found between having a service dog and lower PTSD symptom severity.11

While previous studies have also revealed this, this study was important because it replicated existing findings using the largest sample size to date.

“There is a replication crisis in the field of psychology, where studies that identify a promising finding that happens only once, and then when researchers try to get the same results a second time, there are no significant outcomes,” O’Haire said in a news release.

“This study is exciting and novel because we were able to successfully replicate our initial work demonstrating that service dogs are related to reduced PTSD symptomology.”12

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Many Veterans Are Still Waiting for a Service Dog

Unfortunately, there are currently more veterans with PTSD than there are available service dogs, making waiting lists long. Further, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not support service dogs for veterans with mental health conditions like PTSD — only for those with mobility issues.

The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS, Act would direct the VA to carry out a grant program to provide service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

The VA would provide eligible veterans with a $25,000 voucher for a service dog from a service dog organization that meets national standards set by the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans (ASDPMV).13 It’s a step forward for those with PTSD, and research like O’Haire’s is also working toward establishing the sound science to back up the use of service dogs for those with mental conditions like PTSD.

“Clinicians need to know when to recommend a service dog and who to recommend them to,” O’Haire said. “… And most importantly, we want to break down the stigma that just because someone has an invisible disability doesn’t mean that a service dog isn’t helping them.”14