Serving in the military can be extremely stressful, and combat veterans may be especially susceptible to mental health issues. One way that people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other symptoms of psychological trauma can cope is by getting a veteran service dog to accompany them on their daily routine. Service dogs are trained to perform tasks for their owners that make their lives easier, such as alerting them when something dangerous happens or helping them when they're experiencing PTSD or anxiety.
Benefits of Service Dogs for Veterans
Service dogs are trained to help veterans with a variety of issues. They can be trained to assist their owners with physical disabilities, such as a helping veterans with a missing limb or an injury that makes it difficult to walk. They can also be trained to help veterans with mental health issues, such as PTSD or depression.
The benefits of having a service dog for a veteran are numerous. The dog will be able to assist the veteran with mobility and balance problems; they will also be able to alert the veteran if they are having an episode, which can save lives.
Alerting Families to Changes in Mood
Service dogs can also help to alert family members to changes in mood. If the veteran is having a bad day and needs some time alone, the dog can be trained to go to a room with them and lie down until they are ready to come out. This allows the veteran to be able to take care of themselves without feeling guilty about leaving their family feeling awkward or worried.
Service dogs can also detect when something good is happening and notify their owner by jumping up on them or barking happily. This makes it easier for everyone in the home to feel like they are part of something positive.
Preventing Suicidal Thoughts
Suicidal thoughts and actions are some of the most distressing symptoms that veterans experience. In fact, suicide is the most common cause of death among veterans under 50 years old, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Service dogs can help with suicidal thoughts and actions by alerting family members when their veteran has changed moods or appears to be having difficulty coping with their illness. They can also prevent nightmares and night terrors that can lead to suicidal thoughts. If a service dog is present during these times, they will be able to get their handler out of bed so they don't harm themselves while they are sleeping. Service dogs provide emotional and physical support for veterans who may feel isolated or lonely after leaving the military community behind them.
Helping with Mobility
A mobility issue is any condition that makes it difficult or impossible for a person to walk or move around without assistance. This type of issue can be temporary, as in the case of a broken ankle, or it could be permanent, such as after a spinal injury or the loss of a limb. Many veterans have injuries that limit their ability to walk without assistance, and these injuries often occur during military service. If you are a veteran who is suffering from mobility issues due to injury, you may want to consider using a service dog as an aid when moving around.
Service dogs may be trained to help their owners with mobility tasks that are difficult or impossible for them to do on their own. This assistance may include opening doors and retrieving things that have fallen or are out of reach. Mobility service dogs can also help their owner move around in different situations or act as a brace so veterans can support themselves as they move around. For veterans with mobility issues, having a service dog by their side can make it easier for them to get around and participate in activities they enjoy.
Choosing a Service Dog
If you've been diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD, and are looking for a service dog to help you cope, there are several factors to consider. As with any other type of service dog training, the first step is finding an organization or trainer who specializes in providing dogs for people suffering from mental illness. Once you've chosen an organization that suits your needs and can provide proper training for both the handler and their dog companion, it's time to start preparing for their arrival.
Veterans Affairs and Service Dogs
Typically, if you are eligible for VA benefits and you qualify for a service dog, the VA will cover the costs of acquiring the animal. Also, the VA will provide ongoing support by paying for the dog's veterinary expenses, except for non-prescription medications, and any harnesses or equipment the dog requires to perform their duties, via the VA Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service. Most routine, ongoing expenses -- such as non-prescription dog food, boarding costs, or grooming costs -- are not covered.
To see if they meet the requirements, veterans need to meet with their primary care provider to determine if a service dog is right for them. This evaluation considers the veteran's resources and ability to care for a service dog, and what tasks the service dog may perform, as well as what other assistive technologies or therapies might be suited to that veteran's circumstances.
If the doctor believes a service dog would be beneficial, an application can be submitted on behalf of the veteran. Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but if it is approved, the VA does not actually provide the service dog. Instead, it will refer the veteran a reputable, accredited agency that provides service dogs.
Veteran Service Dog Organizations
There are many organizations that provide service dogs for veterans. Most of these organizations are based in the United States, and some provide service dogs to veterans living in other countries, as well.
Some organizations train veterans to train their own service dogs, while others will actually provide a trained dog to the veteran once they have completed training. A few also offer assistance in locating a provider of animal-assisted therapy services. If you're looking for an organization that provides help with getting a service dog for yourself or your loved one, check out the following:
- K9s for Warriors: This is the largest organization offering service dogs for veterans in an effort to help veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other mental health conditions. The majority of dogs come from high-kill shelters and go through a rigorous process to ensure a proper match.
- NEADS Service Dogs for Veterans: This organization offers fully trained service dogs for veterans with a permanent physical disability, such as hearing loss, multiple sclerosis, or other progressive or degenerative conditions. With this organization, it's important to note that if you develop a condition outside your term of active service, you are still eligible for a service dog.
- America's VetDogs: This organization offers service dogs to veterans with mental and physical impairments, aside from visual impairment. They also have a specialized program developed specifically for veterans with PTSD.
- Pups4Patriots: Specializing in dogs that can assist with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, this organization rescues dogs from shelters that are appropriate for service training. The dogs from this program are free-of-charge to qualified veterans.
- Guide Dogs of America: Guide Dogs of America for Veterans is a non-profit organization that provides guide dogs free of charge to veterans who have been blinded or have vision impairment.
Is a Service Dog Right for You?
If you are a veteran, acquiring a service dog may be a good idea for you to explore, especially if you are struggling with any physical or mental ailments. For so many veterans, dogs are a great source of companionship, and, in many cases, they are helpful reminders that you are not forgotten. Though service dogs don't replace human help entirely, they can provide a critical measure of support to veterans who need it most.