Mike briefly mentioned PTSD dog therapy in one of his posts, and after one of my friends asked me about it, I had to do a little research because I couldn’t quite figure out how it would work. While researching, I came across tons of information about dog therapy for other disorders, but not as much on PTSD. Most of the information on PTSD was included under the more general category of anxiety disorder dog therapy. The part that I found most interesting was how the dog can be trained to help someone experiencing an emotional overload. The following are a variety of methods the dogs use to help a panicked owner…
1. Providing tactile stimulation- it is proposed that the mere nudge of a dog can usually bring someone back from a place of extreme anxiety. This is found to be quite successful in patients dealing with bad nightmares, flashbacks, and hallucinations. The dog is trained to notice these behaviors (not sure how… though nightmares would be easiest I think), and to repeatedly nudge, lick, etc. the owner, being “obnoxiously persistent” until the person is brought back to reality enough to give them a reward to stop the stimulation. It was noted that this can also be used to stop some repetitive behaviors, such as those demonstrated by people with autism, by interrupting the behaviors and distracting the owner from them.
2. Finding an exit- this one’s a bit trickier for the dog to learn, but they can be trained to search out exits upon entering an unfamiliar space. In the case that the owner begins panicking, due to a flashback or other trigger, the dog can lead him or her out of the space into a less threatening environment that is more conducive to recovery.
3. Crowd control- with a similar goal to # 2, dogs can be trained to maintain a certain amount of space around their owner. For people with agoraphobia, it can be very helpful to have the dogs circle them to keep others a safe distance away. Often the dogs lay down with their head at the owner’s feet and their tail pointed towards other people to maximize space between the panicked person and the crowd. It is possible to train dogs to secure themselves firmly enough so that they don’t get jostled by a moving crowd (man’s best friend, for real!).
4. (I love this one!) Deep pressure therapy- from the class presentation on autism we know that people with autism are often soothed by deep pressure (weighted blankets, etc.), and apparently this can have a calming effect on people with PTSD and other panic disorders, too. Medium-sized dogs are trained to spread themselves across the owner’s stomach when he/she is lying down or sitting in a chair, the the combination of the weight and warmth reduces anxiety. Usually about 5 minutes of this is enough for the owner to regain some calm, and apparently it’s tiring for the dogs because they need breaks after more than a few minutes!
There were others, but these were most relevant to PTSD/anxiety disorders. My mom always talks about how she would love to go into animal therapy someday, and I really think that anyone could benefit from a loving pet. Several times, I read about how people with PTSD benefit from the happiness of having a pet as a loyal companion, even if they just serve as something to smile at in the morning after an evening of nightmares. I guess it’s kind of reassuring to be reminded that there are so many different forms of therapy out there, because after learning about how complicated/sometimes unhelpful most medications are, it’s a good consolation. I’m all for combination therapy, and dogs certainly fall into the category of alternative therapy!
(dog therapy information primarily from: http://www.iaadp.org/psd_tasks.html though several sites had almost identical information)