There has been tremendous growth in service dogs working to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As with other service dog specialties, there are some specific tasks people with PTSD and other mental illnesses often need service dogs to help with. When selecting dogs for this work, trainers must consider temperament characteristics needed for these specific tasks.
As is true for many types of service dogs, a retrieve is frequently a useful task for a PTSD service dog. These handlers may need a dog’s assistance with tasks like retrieving medications and bringing their handler an emergency phone. It’s usually easier to teach this behavior to a dog who has a natural tendency to retrieve, so this is a useful quality to look out for when selecting a dog.
Service dogs for PTSD are commonly trained to perform some type of alert or interruption behavior to help an owner manage PTSD symptoms like anxiety and nightmares. They may be trained to nudge or paw in response to the owner’s early stress indicators. This can help the owner become aware of increasing anxiety so they can take appropriate action. The dog needs to be persistent in case the person does not notice or ignores the alert. While dogs can be trained to be persistent to some extent, dogs who are very sensitive and mild may not be persistent enough in a real-world context. On the other hand, a dog who is very pushy may offer “alerts” in situations where they are not needed, in order to receive attention. Like Goldilocks, looking for the just-right level of confidence and persistence is important when selecting a PTSD service dog.
A natural tendency to check in with the owner is also important for dogs who need to perform anxiety alerts or other similar behaviors. It is one thing to train a dog to respond to a cue in a training context, and another thing entirely for the dog to do this in the face of many real-world distractions. A very independent or low-energy dog may not notice the owner’s body language in those contexts, even if highly trained. On the other hand, a dog who is too attuned to human emotions may become stressed or anxious as a result of the owner’s emotional state. As with persistence, a balance of independence and sensitivity is essential in these dogs.
Some handlers may want their service dog to perform DPT, deep pressure therapy. This usually involves the dog leaning on the owner or lying down on the owner’s legs. While dogs can be trained with food rewards to perform this behavior, if the dog does not enjoy this type of contact, the experience can be stressful. On the other hand, some dogs love direct contact like this; if a handler needs their service dog to perform this particular task, enjoyment of physical contact with humans is an important trait to look for in a candidate dog.
Of course, these characteristics are secondary to the essentials needed for all service dogs. Service dogs for PTSD need to be completely non-aggressive, easily trained and confident when working in a variety of different settings. Careful selection of the right dog is challenging but essential to the success of the team.
Interested in learning more about PTSD Service Dogs? See our course on PTSD Service Dog Tasks.