Therapy Dogs: All About Canine Companions for Survivors of Abuse

March 5, 2018

Many people experience abusive situations in their lifetimes: Physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse can occur in many types of interpersonal relationships, and neglect is another common–and deeply debilitating–form of abuse many children suffer through. Survivors of one form of abuse are extremely likely to have suffered other types of abuse as well, since the same perpetrators often employ a variety of harmful strategies to control their victims.

It is difficult to quantify the prevalence of abuse nationwide, especially since violent abuse is more commonly reported than the quieter, more sinister types of maltreatment. However, the long-term effects of any or all of these harmful situations can haunt survivors throughout their lives. That is why scientists, medical professionals, therapists, and other treatment providers are coming together to seek broad, holistic approaches to recovery from abuse.

Service dogs have gained popularity in the United States over the course of the past century. Originally trained to aid wounded veterans, over time they have proven themselves valuable in treating all kinds of ailments. Now, a service dog can provide emotional support as well as many practical forms of assistance to survivors of abuse. Whether they have been diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, like many who have experienced ongoing trauma, or are simply seeking additional therapeutic treatments in their recovery process, many turn to service dogs for additional support.

This informative guide outlines how and why service dogs are used in recovery, including specific symptoms and contexts for which they are most effective. You will discover how patients can enhance their wellbeing by working with service animals, and the scientific support for this therapy approach. Furthermore, you will find out how service animals are trained to assist with symptoms that abuse survivors experience, and which organizations can connect you or your loved one with a service dog for this purpose.

History and research supporting assistance dogs

Guide animals have been referred to in literature and art throughout history, but training schools for service animals first became popularized in Germany in the wake of World War I. Soon after, other countries such as Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States followed suit. Many of the service dogs who came out of these training programs were paired with veterans, particularly after World War II when rising demand led to many more training schools being opened around the country.

Decades of research support the use of service dogs in assisting individuals with physical disabilities. However, in the field of mental illness, randomized controlled trials lag behind the observable evidence of the transformative support offered by service dogs. The US Department of Veterans Affairs commenced a multi-year study in 2015 to illuminate the benefits–and challenges–of canine companionship.

Meg Daley Olmert of Warrior Canine Connection in Baltimore details the link between oxytocin, which increases in the human brain through bonding with a dog, and recovery: “Oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects—the opposite of PTSD symptoms.” Over time, this relationship reduces hyper-vigilance and anxiety, calming the mind and allowing painful memories to reduce their stranglehold on the brain.

What is Complex PTSD?

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD, is a psychological disorder that many survivors of repeated abuse live with. Unlike typical PTSD, which is caused by a single traumatic event or a series of traumatic events over a short time period, C-PTSD takes root over years of trauma. When a child’s environment is unstable and unpredictable, they are unable to develop the coherent sense of self that allows most people to enter healthy relationships, trust their surroundings, and form a basic belief in their own self-worth.

Even when survivors of childhood trauma do not develop C-PTSD, each adverse childhood experience they live through can have lasting effects on emotional and mental health as well as physical health: survivors of abuse are more likely to contract autoimmune diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

Symptoms of C-PTSD fall across a wide range of biological, emotional, and cognitive effects. In simpler PTSD, flashbacks typically involve specific memories and the sound and images associated with traumatic experiences. However, repetitive trauma over the course of many years can make flashbacks much more difficult to recognize. Emotional flashbacks, however, can involve sudden feelings of danger, hopelessness, or helplessness, with no obvious explanation for the altered emotional state.

For this reason, survivors of abuse often feel even more confused and isolated, since they have trouble understanding their own feelings. They have difficulty forming secure attachments in relationships, and because their behavior can appear irrational, a survivor’s deeply-held belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are is often affirmed by other people in their lives. This is one of the reasons that a therapy animal who can offer unconditional, all-consuming love and emotional support can make such a pivotal impact on the recovery process.

What does it take to be a certified service or therapy assistance dog for survivors of abuse?

In order to offer robust emotional support to survivors of abuse, service dogs undergo intense preparatory training with a high level of rigor.

Patriot PAWS, a nonprofit in Rockwell, Texas, sends dogs to prison to complete their training: Inmates assist in the process, and becoming accustomed to an unpredictable atmosphere gives dogs the resilience they’ll need on the job. Service dogs become proficient in performing complex tasks that C-PTSD individuals may need support with: calling emergency services in a crisis, reminding the owner to take their medication, warning them about a situation that could trigger a flashback, or waking up their human partner to go to work or school. Over time, the coping skills that the dog learns become integrated into the owner’s life and habits, and reduce symptoms exponentially.

Service dogs must be able to help their owners in all kinds of situations. Out in public, the dog may circle the owner repeatedly if they sense that other people are getting too close and the owner needs more space. In the workplace, they can offer tactile stimulation or serve as a calming presence in a stressful business meeting. In a tense social situation, the dogs are trained to offer the owner an excuse to leave: The owner offers a subtle cue, and the dog paws at or nudges the owner in an obvious way. In all of these cases and many more, the dog reads the owner’s emotional state and provides whatever assistance will offer the most immediate relief.

Of course, many dogs are unsuited to this work. Because C-PTSD sufferers require calm companions who do not engage in sudden or unpredictable behaviors, trainers carefully screen for any signs that a dog in training lacks the required temperament. Even after a dog has undergone all of the training and reached certification, placement agencies are deeply conscientious about pairing a dog with each patient. They look for compatibility and capability on both sides, taking into account the patient’s treatment regimen, symptoms, and the dog’s level of experience. Some individuals are too traumatized to trust a service dog right away, and must reach a base level of recovery in order to take part in such a program.

Whatever the situation, great oversight goes into training each animal and ensuring a successful relationship between patient and pet.

How can companion service dogs can improve an owner’s life?

Each survivor will have different needs. Someone who has experienced years of verbal abuse, for instance, may rely on the calming, grounding, and quiet steadfastness their service dog provides. A survivor of neglect, emotional and sexual abuse may be especially uncomfortable with any kind of physical touch or affection. In this case, a therapy dog can offer a safe way to ease into close physical proximity with another living being.

The specific ways that a therapy dog offers aid depend on the patient’s circumstances and symptoms. If an abuse survivor is afraid of leaving home, a service dog can give them guidance and confidence by assessing public spaces, leading their owner, and offering protection.

Rick Yount, a clinical social worker, posits that training the dogs helps individuals “practice modulating their stress level and tone of voice,” and that these skills can be applied to recovery. Furthermore, PTSD patients with service dogs adhere to their medications more closely and sleep better, too: “With the dogs they are getting substantially more sleep—sometimes five or six hours instead of two,” Yount says.

Lauren’s Kids, a Florida non-profit founded by a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, lobbied the state legislature to allow therapy dogs to accompany victims of sexual assault during court proceedings. Many survivors do not file charges against their assailants because the fear and toxicity of facing them in court outweighs the benefits of ensuring justice. Therapy dogs, then, can have an enormous impact on reducing incidents of violence by supporting survivors through legal proceedings.

Data suggests that interacting with dogs increases oxytocin and dopamine, and decreases cortisol, the stress hormone. Dog owners are happier and healthier than the population at large, and few would be surprised to know of the scientific evidence to these effects. However, the extensive training that service dogs undergo to aid abuse survivors may increase these neurochemical and emotional benefits many times over.

Some of the demonstrable benefits service dogs offer include:

  • Greater self-sufficiency. Because the animal helps with daily tasks, medication compliance, and deeper sleep, patients have an increased ability to live alone and function independently.
  • Reduced anxiety and stress, leading to fewer flashbacks and more equanimity. With a lessened need for hyper-vigilance because of the animal’s support and the patient’s increased trust, cortisol levels can return to normal for longer periods of time, improving the patient’s ability to think rationally and respond to stressful situations without losing their sense of control.
  • A greater range of coping skills. This comes in part from observing the dog’s behavior and cues, and in part from being more grounded in the present moment due to the dog’s presence, playfulness, and deep, loving commitment. As patients become more self-sufficient and less anxious, they have an easier time implementing other aspects of their treatment protocols and opening up to accepting help from others.

While there is no surefire treatment to instant recovery from trauma, service dogs can go a long way toward easing the pain and isolation of living in the shadow of a difficult past. It can take years to navigate the process from trauma to diagnosis to treatment to recovery. Family members, friends, and medical providers will be crucial supports along the way. However, there are innumerable benefits that assistance dogs alone can provide. If you are inspired to seek a support dog or to train animals for this purpose, keep reading to discover some of the resources available to guide you on your quest.

Resources for Finding a Care Dog

There are many resources for finding a companion service dog or a therapy dog. Additionally, there are many resources to assist those who would like to get a certification for their pet to become a licensed therapy dog. The following list provides useful information on some of the organizations that can help you in your search. For more information on what is available to you locally, you are encouraged to reach out to your local ASPCA or Humane Society chapter. Local trainers and care providers may be willing to work with you to help subsidize the acquisition of a service animal.

Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations that helps individuals find a dog to match his or her needs.

Alliance of Therapy Dogs is a national therapy dog registry with over 14,000 members across North America, and can assist those in certifying their potential therapy dog.

Patriot PAWS provides service dogs to veterans.

Pawsitivity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing dogs and training them as service dogs. Their PTSD support dogs reduce the risk of suicide and improve quality of life.

Pet Partners provides trained handlers and their pets to facilities looking to incorporate therapy animals into their programs. The website also provides a list of links broken down by state for finding a program to become a registered therapy pet handler.

As thousands of families have already learned, dogs have the unique capacity to offer a form of assistive companionship that no human can emulate. No one should ever feel alone in their traumatic histories, trapped and unable to move on with their lives. That is why therapy dogs and service animals have undergone years of training–to make your life brighter, easier, and more bearable day by day.

Written by Nat Smith, a Community Member.

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