Service Dog Tasks for PTSD

by Jean Cary, Service Dog Tutor

Post- traumatic stress syndrome or PTSD is manifested in a variety symptoms including high anxiety, difficulty sleeping, fear of crowds, mood swings, nervousness when entering new environments, self-harming behavior (such as chewing fingers, scratching, biting), and migraine headaches. Some clients experience panic attacks during which they freeze, unable to move.

When the client is working with their service dog, these symptoms can be minimized or completely mitigated. With a service dog at the handler’s side, the handler realizes that he has a partner and is not alone. This team approach makes situations less anxiety-provoking. Focusing on the actions of the dog helps the person come back to reality if they are caught up in a swirl of negative thoughts. With a trained service dog many handlers are able to re-enter full participation in society from grocery shopping to holding down a job to better relationships with their family members and friends. Here are some of the tasks that the dog can be trained to do to help person with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

1.The dog can assist the person to get out of bed in the morning by being cued to the sound of the alarm clock to come to the person and lick them on their face or hands until they wake up. The dog can play with the owner by bringing a toy into the bed. This motivates the owner to get out of bed.

2. If the person is having difficulty sleeping at night, having a dog in bed with them can be very comforting. The dog can wake the person up from a nightmare. Then the owner can place their hands or head across the dogs chest and try to mirror the breathing rhythm of the dog to slow down their own heart rate.

3. If a person has migraines, they can lay down and have the dog place his head across the top of their head. The heat of the dog’s head is distracting from the pain of the migraine.

4. Some people experience self-harming behaviors when they are highly anxious such as chewing their fingers, biting themselves or scratching themselves. Their dog can be taught to interrupt these self-harming behaviors with persistent nuzzling of the hands.

5. There are several ways that the dog can provide calming during severe anxiety attacks. If the person is standing the dog can put their paws on the person shoulders. If the person is sitting the dog can rest his chin on the person’s legs or drape his body over the lap of the person. If the owner is lying down when anxiety attack happens, the dog can drape its body across the person’s chest. All of these behaviors create a calming effect using deep pressure which is very comforting.

6. Another effective way to interrupt an anxiety attack is for the handler to train the dog to their particular anxiety cues such as legs jiggling up and down, fidgeting with their fingers or chewing their hair. Then the dog is taught to come to their side and nuzzle their hands until they get the owner’s attention. The owner can pet the dog 10 times with right hand down the length of the dog’s body and 10 times with his left hand down the length of the dog’s body. This physical activity distracts the person from the anxiety provoking incident.

7. Entering an empty house can be a very fearful experience for a person who is unsure of his environment. The dog can be taught to “check the perimeter”. The dog goes into each room in the house and makes sure that there’s nobody in the house.

8. When a person is anxious about traveling through crowds or in unfamiliar places, using the Touch command with the dog helps ground the person in reality and reminds the person that they are part of a team and not walking solo through the environment.

9. For people who experience anxiety in crowded settings the dogs can be taught to provide a barrier between individuals and the handler by blocking the handler on the front side or providing cover for the back of the handler. When teaching the dog to create a barrier between handler and other people, the dog is taught to stand in front of the handler by using hand targeting to either position the dog directly in front of the handler facing outward or across the front of the handler. The dog can either sit, lie down or stand in this position.

10. With training the dog can “Cover” the handler’s back and prevent people from walking up too close to the back of the person and surprising them. The dog must not must not wander and must stay directly behind the handler. It is best to train this with a wall behind the handler, so the dog gets used to being very close to his handler. Then the handler says, “Watch my back.” or “Cover” as people walk by.

A good source of training videos for this is the Service Dog Vlog on YouTube.