PTSD Service Dogs Are Saving Lives

By Elizabeth Brico 07/31/18

"If I could pin a medal on Aura, I would," Evans asserts. "I feel safe in my own world since I've had Aura. She's life saving."

Gretchen Evans and her dog, Aura, sitting together on rocks.
One of Aura's tasks is to wake Evans when she's having a nightmare.

United States Army Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans' life changed forever in 2006. This was her ninth combat tour since joining the Army in 1979. It was early spring, Afghanistan, and snow still peaked the mountains, but the chill in the air was beginning to shudder into the warmth that heralded the time for going home. One instant shortly before departure would change her homecoming from routine to medically urgent. While taking enemy fire, a nearby rocket blast left Evans with a traumatic brain injury and total hearing loss. She also suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although the injuries sustained on that last tour in Afghanistan meant the end of Evans' 27-year military career, she believes she's had PTSD ever since her first tour to Grenada in 1983.

"You just learn to keep that stuff in control because it wasn’t okay or acceptable to exhibit PTSD symptoms while in active duty," says Evans, who began finally treating her psychological trauma in 2008. Since accepting and addressing her PTSD diagnosis, Evans has used several different treatments including therapy, medication, and identifying her personal triggers. But one of her most helpful aids comes in the form of her faithful service dog, Aura.

Companion animals have entered the mainstream conversation in recent years as reaping a host of physical and mental health benefits for their owners. These boons include everything from lower blood pressure to decreased anxiety. Emotional support animals have gained popularity among people struggling with disorders like depression and anxiety. These animals are able to provide comfort, companionship, and a sense of purpose to some people who have shown resistance to other, more formalized treatments. Given the rising popularity of emotional support dogs and other pets, it's important to recognize their distinction from service animals. Service dogs, which include Psychiatric Service Dogs, receive specific training related to their handler's disability. We have probably all encountered a seeing-eye dog helping his visually impaired handler keep from walking into a busy intersection, for example. Emotional support dogs are less specialized and not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act—which means you can't claim discrimination if your therapy dog gets kicked out of the supermarket. The distinction may seem unfair for those who swear by their companion dog, but it does allow those with a qualifying disorder to receive highly specialized assistance. For people with PTSD, that assistance can be life changing.

The science on service dogs for PTSD is still relatively sparse. That which does exist tends to focus on the benefits for combat personnel, like Evans, which leaves little to no evidence for the use of psychiatric dogs in the treatment of PTSD related to sexual assault, natural disaster, or other forms of trauma. Nonetheless, there is strong anecdotal support of service dogs for the treatment of trauma survivors, and PTSD is now a service-dog qualifying disorder in the United States.

Evans received Aura free-of-cost through an organization called America's Vet Dogs, which provides service dogs to disabled U.S. veterans and first responders. Organizations like these are important because Veteran's Affairs does not currently provide service dogs for their members. Aura is technically categorized as a hearing-aid dog because Evans' deafness is considered her primary disability, but Evans says the training Aura received for her PTSD has been life-changing after a series of false-starts when it came to her psychological recovery.

"In the beginning I tried excessive exercise...I tried meditation...I swam with the sharks, which is not really all that relaxing, and I did virtual reality...which works for a lot of veterans, but I had ten million things that happened to me, not just one trauma." In the end, she says, a combination of medicinal, psychological, and community support helped her come to a place where her PTSD is manageable. And Aura.

One of Aura's dominant PTSD-related tasks comes in the form of something that may sound simple to those who have never experienced a trauma nightmare: waking Evans up. This is a task echoed in the emerging literature on PTSD service dogs. The animals act by removing covers from their handler, nudging them, or even jumping onto their handler's chest if other efforts are unsuccessful. This assistance alone is crucial, because, unlike average nightmares, PTSD-related nightmares typically replay the events or emotions of the trauma in such vivid detail that those who suffer from them may fear returning to sleep, leaving them fatigued and emotionally drained before the day has even begun.

Evans says Aura also helps her feel safe in the world. The combination of hearing loss and combat-related PTSD can leave Evans feeling vulnerable in public, especially in settings where she has to stand in line or navigate a crowd of unfamiliar people. Her service dog helps to alert her when strangers are approaching from behind, and to provide a berth that minimizes unwanted contact—all of these important for the reduction of hypervigilance, a common PTSD symptom that leaves sufferers feeling anxious, alert, and physically fatigued.

The biggest criticism emerging from the practice of using service dogs to support PTSD recovery is that dogs have a considerably shorter life span than humans, which could potentially leave an attached handler devastated by the loss. Though merely speculative at this point, this concern merits further research, especially when it comes to the care of survivors who witnessed or experienced loss of life.

Research on PTSD dogs is still young and much of the extant literature relies on self-reports. Like many aspects of trauma research, it has thus far focused mostly on combat veterans. It will likely be years before we have a large body of data confirming the experiences of combat trauma survivors like Evans, and even longer before that is applied to survivors of other types of trauma. Until then, we have the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by these animals.

"If I could pin a medal on Aura, I would," Evans asserts. "I feel safe in my own world since I've had Aura. She's life saving."

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Elizabeth Brico is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She got her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University, where she justified spending more time shooting dope than doing homework because William Burroughs once taught there. Now, she writes about trauma, addiction, and recovery on her blog Betty's Battleground. She's also a regular contributor to the PTSD blog on HealthyPlace, and freelances as much as she can for The Fix and Tonic/VICE. Her work has also appeared on VoxStatOzyTalk PovertyRacked, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction. Find her portfolio and ramblings about writing on, or stalk her on Twitter: @elizabethbrico (if you're interesting, she might even stalk you back).