By Julie Sayres, Producer
Most people love dogs. They make you feel better just by seeing their faces when you get home. The dogs wag their tails, flatten their ears and show you just how glad they are that you’ve arrived. And you’re probably pretty glad too.
The pairing between dogs and humans goes back a long time, but the training of particular dogs to be service animals is relatively new. People like to be with their dogs, but only canines specifically trained to mitigate the symptoms of PTSD or a physical disability are considered real service dogs.
WHAT SERVICE DOGS CAN DO
As opposed to therapy dogs or emotional support animals (ESA), service dogs are trained to do specific tasks that mitigate the physical or psychological handicap of their handler. They can alert to seizures or a high glucose level in diabetics, help a blind person negotiate the world, turn on a light switch and pick up something from the floor.
For service dogs to be certified, they need to perform certain tasks. Other examples of what they do for people with PTSD, including veterans are: BLOCK: If the handler feels too crowded, the dog can open up a space and protect him from a crowd. Another one is COVER, where the dog will face behind the handler and cover his back. Another important task is INTERRUPT. If a veteran is having a nightmare, flashback or panic attack, the dog will literally interrupt it by pawing or licking the handler, bringing him or her back to the here and now and reducing the panic.
An emotional support animal is a well-trained obedience dog, but is not required to learn tasks.
WHERE SERVICE DOGS CAN GO
According to the ADA (American Disabilities Act), a certified service dog can have full access and go virtually anywhere the handler can go, except special places like an operating room, for obvious sanitary reasons. They are welcome on any form of public transportation, including airplanes. An ESA is also allowed on planes with a note from a doctor, but if they’re not well-trained, they can cause problems for a disabled handler with a real service dog. This is becoming more and more of an issue where untrained animals whose owners simply want them with them are creating problems on airplanes and other public transportation.
The Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans, a national organization, is striving to move forward with a standardized certification nationwide. This would prevent dogs who don’t meet these standards from having unlimited access to areas where service dogs are needed. The association is in the process of having meetings to bring these standards into law.
The ADA already has a PUBLIC ACCESS TEST, which requires dogs to demonstrate good control, like not picking food up off the ground. They should be neutral to outside stimuli and pay attention to their handler.
While all dogs, including emotional support dogs, can be of enormous benefit to their owners, they do not have access rights like highly-trained certified service dogs. A true service dog can prevent a veteran from taking his or her life by mitigating the isolation and despair that results from extreme trauma. They need to be protected by our laws.
By Julie Sayres, Producer
What is PTSD
The term PTSD is ubiquitous these days. It’s even used by young people jokingly as another expression for stress. But the real PTSD is an invisible injury that has affected soldiers, accident, terror, rape and abuse victims as well as countless other people who have experienced intense forms of violence. Statistics have shown that with appropriate treatment, most people can recover, but for those who don’t, it’s a scourge. The symptoms are hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, nightmares, rages and, often, endless despair.
The invisible injuries resulting from the trauma of war have been known and written about for millennia.
Perhaps first mentioned in GILGAMESH 4,000 years ago, descriptions of this malady were well-reported in the Iliad of Homer, in the Bible, written about by Shakespeare in the war plays and in countless poems and songs.
The term PTSD first appeared in the 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), published by the American Psychiatric Association, but over the centuries, different terms have been used to describe this condition.
In the 1880s, after a series of railway disasters, the personality changes after trauma were called “railway spine” or “railway brain,” although there was a controversy among physicians about whether these were organic physical issues or psychological.
During and after World War I, soldiers who appeared unscathed physically but who suffered terrible emotional disorders were described as suffering from “Shell shock” or “war neuroses.” Ultimately, it came to be known as “combat stress reaction” or “battle fatigue.”
During the Vietnam War the chronic psychiatric syndrome seen in these soldiers was originally called “gross stress reaction” until the name was replaced by PTSD in 1980.
Cultures across the globe have dealt with the trauma of returning soldiers in different ways.
In the western world therapies like hypnotherapy, hydrotherapy and electric shock were tried in past centuries with no results. More effectively, returning soldiers were given prescribed rituals to release the spiritual and emotional toxins of war and to call their lost souls back into their bodies so they can safely return to society as elder warriors celebrated by civilian society.
Americans embraced this tradition through WWII, but since then, as civilians became less supportive of our wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), rituals and celebration of returning soldiers has given way to a medical model that has been only sporadically effective. As wars have continued throughout the world, healthcare professionals have tried many different treatment modalities to stem the tide of despair in these warriors. Many forms of psychiatric treatment and untold forms of medication have proved only sporadically effective. Alternative therapies have arisen to work in tandem with therapy and meds that show much promise. Pairing vets with a service dog has recently proved to be a consistently effective modality to reduce symptoms of PTSD. Also, most recently government has supported medical trials with only several supervised sessions with the psychedelic drug MDMA, which has proved a remarkably effective treatment.
A NEW NAME
Recently, the term PTSD has come under fire for perpetuating the shame that people feel for having a “disorder.” There is a dedicated group of clinicians who support using the acronym PTSI, Post Traumatic Stress Injury. The word “disorder” implies a flaw. The term “injury” allows the person impacted to retain their dignity and honor, and alludes to the possibility of healing. The idea of this change is to raise the veteran’s sense of self-worth and re-route the guilt, regret and anguish associated with everything that generated the trauma. Veterans should be treated with compassion and honor. Supporters of this new term, like Dr. Frank Ochberg, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Michigan State University and author Jonathan Shay, are trying to reduce the stigma against these veterans and raise their heroic profile.
The veterans’ invisible wounds are thus being made visible and can be worn as a badge of honor, as a logical outcome of the intense and direct experience of war, instead of something to hide in a dark room.
Giving soldiers their dignity back when they come home irrevocably changed is the first step to helping them to integrate back into a life that may never be the same but can be viable and rich. An injury is not a disorder and as treatments evolve, so does the terminology.
REFERENCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
Edward Tick, PhD, Founder of Soldier’s Heart
Dr. Frank Ochberg, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Michigan State University
Marc-Antoine Crocq, MD
Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
Larry Decker, The Alchemy of Combat: Transforming Trauma in Combat Veterans