by Kassandra Lamb
PTSD was my specialty when I was a practicing therapist, and yet I realized recently that I’ve never blogged about it to any great extent. Well, now I have a really good reason for doing so.
Lately I’ve become fascinated by the use of service dogs to help people suffering from this disorder. So much so that I’ve started a new mystery series about a woman who trains these service dogs for combat veterans, and her experiences with a variety of clients. (More on the first release in this series in a bit.)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the diagnosis given when a person suffers symptoms as a result of exposure to a severe trauma. In the general population, the life-time prevalence rate is 8%, which is pretty high. Only phobias, depression and drug abuse are more common.
The list of symptoms is extensive, so I’m just going to hit on the most common ones, and how service dogs can help manage them.
But first let’s define trauma. This is a word that tends to be overused in our society for anything that makes us feel bad. The best definition I’ve ever heard for trauma comes from Lenore Terr, MD in her book, Unchained Memories (I’m paraphrasing her a little here):
A traumatic event is so emotionally overwhelming that the person experiencing it cannot process it cognitively nor emotionally at the time that it happens.
Such events are often sudden and unexpected. They might be a bad car accident, a natural disaster, a criminal assault, being in combat, etc.
PTSD was first identified in combat veterans. It was once called shell shock or battle fatigue. And this group still has one of the highest rates of PTSD, ranging from 12% (Gulf War vets) to 30% (Vietnam-era vets). The rate of PTSD currently in veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts is 13.8%.
The most common and debilitating of the symptoms are anxiety attacks (triggered by reminders of the trauma), nightmares and flashbacks. Service dogs are trained to pick up on the early stages of these symptoms and interrupt them.
If you have a dog, you know how sensitive they can be to their owner’s moods. When you’re depressed or anxious, they tend to sense it and often try to offer comfort. In service dogs, this natural tendency is enhanced through training and then the dog is taught to do something about it.
I’m still learning about all this myself for my new mystery series, but I know that for nightmares, this may mean waking their handlers by barking or nudging him/her with their noses. The service dogs also provide grounding and a calming effect. Again, if you have a dog (or a cat), you know how soothing it can be to stroke their coat and their silky ears.
(Research has been done on this aspect of therapy/service dogs in general. Petting and interacting with them lowers heart rate and blood pressure and improves mood.)
With anxiety attacks, the dog often can alert their human that the attack is starting before the person has become consciously aware of the building anxiety. Then s/he can implement strategies (taught by his/her counselor) to nip the attack in the bud.
Service dogs also make it easier for veterans suffering from PTSD to go out in public. Two other PTSD symptoms are hypervigilance and an exaggerated startle response. Scary things have taken this person by surprise before, so now their nervous system is constantly on the alert, which is not good for their mental nor physical health.
There are two things the service dogs are trained to do to help with this hypervigilance. One is called the cover command. Whenever their human stops moving, the dog turns around and faces the way they came. The dog literally has the person’s back. S/he signals the handler if someone is approaching from behind, usually with a perking of their ears or a tail wag.
The dogs are also trained to step between their handler and anyone approaching them. These may sound like small things to most of us, but for those who suffer from PTSD, they can allow the person to relax a good bit more when out and about in the world.
This and also the strong sense of connection with the dog are particularly helpful for overcoming one of the most subtle and potentially destructive of the symptoms, a sense of isolation from others. People who have experienced extreme events sometimes are left feeling like they are different from others in some irrevocable way; they may even feel like they are “damaged goods.”
Being more comfortable in public and experiencing the unconditional love of a canine companion can go a long way toward overcoming this feeling of otherness, and help the veteran become more integrated into his/her community.
Combat veterans should only feel set apart in a proud way, that they have served their country well and are respected for their sacrifices. Service dogs can help them hold their heads high and get on with their lives.
(Stay tuned for more about this wonderful boon for veterans as I learn more myself.)
And today is the cover reveal for my new series. Another masterpiece by Melinda VanLone. Ta-da!! (Psst! The book is available for pre-order for just $1.99; it goes up after the release.)
Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) likes to think of herself as a normal person, even though she has a rather abnormal vocation. She trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD. Then the ex-Marine owner of her first trainee is accused of murdering his wife, and Marcia gets sucked into an even more abnormal avocation–amateur sleuth.
Called in to dog-sit the Labrador service dog, Buddy, she’s outraged that his veteran owner is being presumed guilty until proven innocent. With Buddy’s help, she tries to uncover the real killer.
Even after the hunky local sheriff politely tells her to butt out, Marcia keeps poking around. Until the killer finally pokes back.
AND, I’m having a Facebook party next week to celebrate the new series. Click here to check it out and sign up. There’ll be lots of prizes and fun!!
Are you a combat veteran or do you know one personally? What obstacles have you/they encountered in the reentry-into-civilian-life process?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
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