I receive many questions about service dogs for people with Post Traumatic Stress. However, trainers are often surprised to learn that there is not a clear consensus on which tasks are appropriate for this type of work.
Tasks for PTSD Service Dogs
Some tasks often trained to dogs helping people with PTSD include:
- Medication reminders
- Lead the person to an exit or other predetermined location
- Retrieve an emergency phone
- Find the car in a parking lot
- Touch owner with nose/paw when owner is showing signs of anxiety
- Hug on cue
- Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) – laying down on person’s lap or across the owner’s legs
- Bring owner a weighted blanket or pillow (alternative to DPT)
- Turn lights on/off
- Wake up owner if owner is having nightmare
- Block/make space in a crowd
As with other types of service dogs, a healthcare provider should be involved in selecting the tasks. A task that is appropriate for one individual may be inappropriate for another.
Some industry professionals have expressed concerns that a few of the tasks being trained to service dogs helping people with PTSD may not be helpful to the individual’s mental health. For example, cuing a dog to block the space between themselves and an unfamiliar person? Is this task actually a crutch that prevents the individual from addressing their anxiety in a better way? Another controversial task is the “room sweep” where the dog enters a room first and alerts the owner if another person is in the room.
It’s also possible that the truth could lie somewhere between, for some individuals these tasks may allow them to use less medication and to get out and about. Whereas for others, the same tasks may not be beneficial. At the moment we have more questions than answers. The Veterans Administration is pursuing research to quantify the benefits of service dogs for people with PTSD, this research has had a lot of challenges and restarts. In the meantime, the safest bet is for trainers involved with service dogs is to work in collaboration with client’s mental health providers. Discussing tasks with the individual’s health care provider can help to ensure tasks selected are really what that person needs.