Service Dogs Can Be Game Changers for Vets With PTSD
Last Updated: 12 Sep 2022
Veterans Support & Mental Health Careecho $minutes. " Minute Read"?>
For many Veterans, especially those with PTSD, a dog is more than just a loyal companion—they’re a fundamental part of recovery.
We all know that dogs are known as “man’s best friend.” But for many Veterans, especially those with PTSD, a dog is more than just a loyal companion—they’re a fundamental part of recovery.
So, what is a service dog and how can they help Veterans with PTSD? Let’s take a look.
Service Dogs in El Paso
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is trained to perform tasks for the person in need. For a Veteran with PTSD, a service dog could be trained to assist with a physical disability or detect and soothe anxiety.
Our El Paso staff members Ben Miranda (Director of Business Operations) and Ismael Lopez (Outreach Director for The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Endeavors, El Paso) have seen firsthand how a service dog can transform a Veteran’s life. In 2019, the two partnered with the local El Paso Humane Society to put together the pilot version of a service dog training program.
For Ben, who spent time as a military dog handler for the Air Force, it was a natural fit. Ismael quickly jumped on board with the vision, and the two gathered a group of Veterans to find and train their new service dogs.
Connection & Companionship
When Ben and Ismael took the Veterans to the Humane Society to choose a service dog, many of them had a preconceived notion of what their service dog would look like.
However, the two knew that a strong connection with the animal is more important than a preference for breed or temperament. “We always say, it’s not the Veteran who selects the dog, it’s the dog that selects the Veteran,” said Ben.
“We had the Veterans take the dog out for a walk to see if they connected with the dog—if it was going to listen, and if they were paying attention to the Veteran,” said Ben. He said the results were often surprising: a big tough Vet who thought they wanted a German Shepherd might actually go home with a cute little fluff ball.
The connection these Veterans made with their future service dogs was an important part of the very purpose of a service animal. Service members with PTSD often report feeling isolated, alone, and misunderstood when they come home from deployment. A service dog can lessen these feelings of loneliness and create a sense of comfort.
A Sense of Responsibility
Many service dogs are trained professionally and then paired with a Veteran, but Ben and Ismael wanted the Veteran themselves to be the actual trainers.
The crew met weekly at a local park and discussed basic fundamentals, like first aid 101: How do you care for your dog? How do you groom your dog? How do you check their teeth? How do you check their pulse? How do you clean their ears?
Then, they provided a few weeks of very intense basic obedience training. “The Veterans performed a lot of hands-on training with their dog,” said Ben. “And then for the rest of the week until we met the next Saturday, they had to continuously practice with their dogs.”
This level of slow and steady training is routine and can be grounding for people with PTSD. Plus, they bonded with their dogs and gained a sense of accomplishment and trust.
Finding Safety in the World Again
The pilot program had phenomenal results. The spouse of a Veteran came up to Ben during graduation to let him know her husband had not been able to go out with the family in a long time because they simply weren’t comfortable being in large spaces.
However, a week prior to the graduation, this Veteran actually invited the family to the movie theater—something they hadn’t done in many years.
“The way the spouse was sharing this with me was very emotional because they hadn’t done this level of activity in years,” said Ben. “Because of the training, they were able to have family time outside of the house. It was amazing.”
One of the Veterans in the program had barely left his house since he transitioned out of the military. It had been almost a year. Once he completed the training and had his service dog, he was finally able to go on dates with his wife to the park.
“His wife messaged us because she was just so happy that he was out, you know, out of the house because they hadn’t been on a date in over a year and they haven’t done anything,” said Ismael.
Service Dogs Are Mental Health Care
We believe that suicide prevention must be holistic—quality of life isn’t just elevated by mental health care or exercise. Instead, wellness encompasses a broad spectrum of factors. In other words, if having a service dog increases a Veteran’s quality of life, it’s a wellness tool.
“I always tell people that, when it comes to mental health, recovery is whatever you want it to look like,” said Ismael. For many Veterans, having a service dog may be a primary way for them to access mental health care.
Ismael explained that many Vets are not very trusting of traditional mental health techniques like therapy or medicine. “I try to get them involved with their own mental health in any way possible, whether that’s through art or or support groups or exercise,” he said. “Some of them gravitate towards dogs.”
Ultimately, the importance of service dogs is to allow the Veteran to have a higher quality of life and to be able to get out of their comfort zone in a way they couldn’t do on their own, knowing that that dog will be there to support.
Based on the success of this pilot program, Ben is currently exploring partnerships to include a service dog training program in our new Veteran Wellness Center in El Paso. Follow our social accounts @endeavorsorg and stay tuned with updates!
Endeavors is a longstanding national non-profit that provides an array of programs and services in support of children, families, Veterans, and those struggling with mental illness and other disabilities. Endeavors serves vulnerable people in crisis through innovative personalized services. For more information, please visit endeavors.org.