By Helen Young
As we’re all painfully aware, the VA is staggering under the strain of all the suffering veterans in need of help. Unable to get the conventional help they need (and perhaps not really benefiting from the nature of that conventional help), many vets are falling through the cracks. It is suspected that far more veterans than actively seek help are suffering from PTSD and similar conditions - and of those who do seek help, many do not receive it. This is an extremely worrying situation, given the scale of the problem. However, some veterans are getting help from alternative or unconventional therapies. We’ve already covered some of these in passing, but here I’d like to take a closer look at one such treatment method: pet or animal therapy.
Animals and Mental Health
There have been many studies into the effects of animals upon our mental health. It seems that animals with which we form an emotional connection - particularly dogs - are capable of having a beneficial and even transformative effect upon our state of mind. Animals can calm us, reduce our stress levels, boost our moods, play a significant part in banishing conditions like depression, lower our blood pressure, improve our physical health, raise our self-esteem, and even help us to get over addictions. The reasons behind this are varied, and have a lot to do with our precise relationship with the animals in question. Although therapy animals brought in to meet patients who do not know them frequently do have an uplifting effect (and we’ve all heard the anecdotes about how things like swimming with dolphins and communicating with horses can enact healing ‘miracles’) - it’s generally agreed that those in need feel the most benefit from animal therapy if they have a permanent to semi-permanent relationship with the animal. For this reason, some organizations are offering ‘service animals’ for veterans suffering from war-related mental trauma.
Given the long and extensive relationship humans have enjoyed with dogs, our brains tend to be better equipped to connect on an emotional level with dogs than with other animals. This is not to say that people cannot form deep and beneficial bonds with non-canine buddies, but in general dogs are the favored option for service animal organizations. Not only are they capable of great bonding, communication, and emotional understanding with humans, they can also be trained to fulfil roles which may actively help to improve or avoid PTSD symptoms and triggers. For example, a PTSD assistance dog could be trained to recognise specific sights, sounds, and smells which may provoke a reaction from their handler. Given the enhanced sensory repertoire available to canines, it is likely that the dog would be able to sense the trigger before their handler did, and lead their handler away from it. Many former service men and women have also noted that the presence of a dog makes them feel as though they can relax and ‘drop their guard’ a little more than they otherwise would. Hyper-vigilance being quite a large problem for many veterans, this is a considerable advantage. On a more ephemeral level, dogs (and many other animals) can help the traumatized to reconnect with their emotions, to develop their communication skills, and to generate confidence in themselves. Being loved and relied upon by an animal gives both a sense of responsibility and a sense of self-worth which is invaluable for those who have experienced trauma. Some have also said that their animals help them out socially by providing a ‘safe’ talking point, thus enabling them to re-integrate more effectively into society.
A Burgeoning Business
As yet, there are no official routes by which one may obtain a PTSD assistance animal. But there are charities and other organizations springing up which help those in need to find and train assistance animals in accordance with their needs. Some people train their own family dogs to help them out in specific ways, while others are assigned or choose puppies from the relevant organization. Due to the highly individualized ways in which service-related trauma presents itself, one cannot train a ‘general’ assistance animal in this respect. Instead, dog and handler must go through the training process together from day one. For most, the training process itself is very therapeutic, not only helping dog and handler to bond, but also allowing the veteran to learn about and perhaps start coming to terms with their own triggers and issues.
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