Like veterans of war, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very much a reality for sexual assault victims. Victims of sexual assault and rape often suffer from PTSD in varying degrees, and it can be difficult to manage. That’s why more victims are seeking the help of service dogs for daily support.
Service dogs are well known for their work with the deaf, blind, and people with other forms of physical disabilities. Within recent years, service dogs have proven to help those with psychological illness, like depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and PTSD. Studies from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense outline the benefit service dogs can have on traumatized soldiers suffering from anxiety, sleep deprivation, and lack of social skills. Soldiers provided with service dogs showed great improvement in their ailments.
PTSD is often associated with trauma during combat, but has been seen following other traumatic life events, such as physical, mental, and sexual assault. Roughly 30% of sexual assault victims develop PTSD at some point in their lives, ranking their chance of PTSD 10% higher than war veterans, according to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center. Experts believe that service dogs could be incredibly beneficial to sexual assaults victims, helping them overcome their issues with trust and relationships.
The average person cannot afford a service dog, as most cost more than $20,000. Due to lack of funding from pharmaceutical companies, who aren’t interested in this form of therapy, many people suffering from PTSD do not have access to service dogs.
Colonel Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, chief clinical officer for Washington, D.C.’s Department of Mental Health was quoted saying, “If the dog considerably improves quality of life, which I’ve seen, it’s almost indescribable how much it’s worth for that person.” Colonel Ritchie is also a retired United States Army psychiatrist, and strong advocate for service dogs helping victims of PTSD.
Until we can measure the exact effects of service dogs on victims of PTSD, there will be little guidance to those looking for help. Many clinicians are concerned with the proper training of the animals.
A study is being conducted on an earlier veterans program called Paws for Purple Hearts. The program enlists the help of soldiers living with PTSD, to train service dogs, in order to aid other soldiers with physical disabilities. This program benefits both soldiers and dogs. In 2012, the United States Army Medical Department Journal conducted a study, yielding positive results. Soldiers reported that working with dogs helped them feel more in control of their emotions, and aware of their mental state. Working with the dogs also helped boost their self esteem and improved their ability to interact with others.
Service dogs trained to work with victims of PTSD are learning in a non-traditional sense. The dogs are tailored to individual handlers and their needs. For example, one dog is being trained to guard her owners back while she makes withdrawals at ATMs and shops in grocery stores. These situations cause the handler anxiety, which her dog is trained to pick up on. They are also working with the dog to recognize signs of anxiety, so she can help calm her owner in public.
Having a service dog trained to assist those with PTSD will help many victims re-enter the world with a brighter outlook on life. These dogs are helping survivors regain their confidence and eliminate feelings of vulnerability, giving them the confidence they need to move forward.
“Anyone who has ever had a dog, and had a rough week, knows that having to walk your dog and get your shoes on and go outside made a huge difference.” – Alicia, sexual assault survivor.