Why Service Dogs work for PTSD Veterans
A dog can be trained to do things for his owner, such as becoming a "Service Dog". Dogs respond to this training because they LOVE their owners. The dog "works", obeying and alerting, because of the bond that it has with his owner. Not all dogs are able to be trained as a "Service Dog", this is why the selection process is so important. Service dogs are "handler sensitive" but not overly so. If a dog is overly sensitive can they slide into the overly careful mode and then they shut down and will not be sensitive enough to their owners needs. Service Dogs must also be able to "ignore" distractions in order to remain calm and in control when the owner is upset and when the dog is in public. This includes being near other dogs, strange people and general noise when out in public like sirens, car horns and the like.
Training the dog to alert when the owner in distress is a matter of the two coming together as a team and good training. To train a dog to alert to PTSD for example – PTSD is an anxiety disorder – the dog must notice emotional escalations in his owner naturally. In otherwords, this must be instinctual for the dog, then the trainer and the Veteran can build on that recognition with more intense and specific training to teach the dog to interrupt, "alert", before the situation gets out of control for the owner. There are certain innate character traits and drives built into dogs that can be worked with but you can't TRAIN instinct into a dog.
For instance suppose a Veteran wants to train his own dog that has been his pet as a Service Dog for himself. This is dog has not been specifically selected as a Service Dog based on his nature, he was a pet. The dog comes with some pre-training, usually as an adult dog. Suppose his breed is not known for having a great retrieve drive but the veteran who is now in a wheelchair, wants him to retrieve an emergency phone. We can't manufacturer or train in the "retrieve drive" in the dog, but we can modify the service dog's vest to have a pocket for the phone. Therefore, when his owner calls him to come he is bringing the phone in his vest. That is an example of a training workaround.
If the Veteran is given a dog through our program the two will be matched after basic obedience training is successfully completed by the dog with a grade of superior. The "Service Dog" portion of a dogs training becomes "a work in progress" over a 6 month or so period for both the dog and Veteran. Because the two are bonding during training and the dog is showing natural love towards the Veteran, the dog by it's very presence is likely to calm the veteran and keep him or her from wanting to harm himself and the dog will begin to naturally notice the Veterans anxiety and attempt to soothe his owner even before the full Service Dog training is complete. The relationship with his dog and responsibility in caring for his dog that he is beginning to love in itself in highly likely to help to decrease Veteran suicides. As the dog – veteran bond increases training together for specific alerts will become more and more evident and progress rapidly.
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