Saving Dogs and Saving Warriors - Combating PTSD Among Veterans

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects one in five combat veterans and not only contributes to more than 22 suicides per day in this population, but prevents many of them from leading successful civilian lives. Care for veterans with PTSD currently overwhelms the VA system’s resources, is inefficient in process and often suboptimal in outcome. At the same time, approximately 1.7 million dogs are euthanized annually in the U.S.

In addition to providing top-level police dogs to law enforcement and personal protection K9s to individuals and families, North Edge K9 also trains service dogs for military veterans suffering from PTSD. (Most of North Edge K9’s trainers are active police K9 handlers with many years of real world experience.)

Tailoring training to each veteran’s needs

North Edge K9 had the opportunity to experience the intimate process of tailoring each dog to the individual veteran’s needs which forms a tight bond between trainers and “their” veterans and their families. Through this experience, all trainers saw first-hand what these service K9s can do for their veterans. Individuals previously crippled or suicidal by the effects of PTSD are gradually gaining their lives back, starting or changing to civilian careers, bringing their families back from the brink of collapse and divorce, and becoming emotionally available to their children again. This profound emotional experience led North Edge K9 to seek ways of creating a program with a continuous timeline and larger footprint in Maine.

A program is born

North Edge K9 partners with two local nonprofit organizations, EAV and K9s on The Front Line to provide PTSD service dogs to deserving veterans at no cost to them, through a uniquely designed process and training program that combines cost-effective operations, care, medical oversight and follow-up. The team is particularly proud of delivering their service at a cost of less than 20% compared to the national average.

Offering support, saving lives

A specially trained PTSD service dog can literally save and change the veteran’s life by providing a sense of security and neutralizing negative emotions absorbed from the veteran. Additionally these dogs can be trained to perform specific tasks to intercept paranoia and flashbacks, interrupt repetitive or injurious behavior, blunting nightmares, retrieving objects and guiding in stressful situations. Moreover, these service dogs act as a social buffer between the veteran and the general public, thus facilitating a more secure functioning of the individual. At the same time lives of dogs that would otherwise await euthanasia in kill shelters are saved and these dogs are given a purpose and job instead.

Few reports have emphasized the utility of service K9s in helping veterans with PTSD, but as of today there are no controlled clinical trials formally addressing this area and as such there are no reliable guidelines or outcome studies. Likewise, there are no controlled studies on overall health improvement, economic impact and reduction in health care utilization.

Gearing up to serve the entire state

With the ultimate goal of establishing a state-wide, supervised PTSD service dog program for Maine veterans, North Edge K9 has tested the logistical infrastructure in a controlled study, which will also measured medical, social and economic impact, as well as health care utilization review. The overwhelmingly positive results of our pilot phase will help to expand the program proportionally into the future and it is hoped that the program may serve as a model for other regions as well.

North Edge K9’s team members themselves have first-hand knowledge of the effects of PTSD and they have access to a large pool of service dog candidates in kill shelters. Dogs pre-selected for the program are initially evaluated by North Edge K9 and accepted based on thorough evaluation of temperament, drives and sociability. Veteran recipients, once chosen, will speak extensively with a trainer to discern as much information as possible about lifestyle, needs, living situation, triggers, etc. Then an appropriate dog is selected for that veteran and will begin training at North Edge K9.

Once fully trained, the service dog will have established the lasting bond and mutually beneficial relationship that will forever change the lives of both the dog and the veteran.

Four pillars of success

Training a PTSD service dog generally rests on four critical pillars:

  1. Temperament and emotional intelligence. These attributes cannot be trained but need to be present. PTSD service dogs have to act as ‘sponges’, soaking up and neutralizing the recipient’s anxiety and other negative emotions.
  2. Environmental soundness. This attribute can be honed through training that includes extensive exposure to a wide variety of external stimuli. The future service dog needs to become oblivious to its surroundings as to completely focus on the veteran.
  3. Obedience. Generally, solid obedience is a must not only for the veteran’s day to day activities with the service dog, but also to project the positive image of a very well behaved dog to the public.
  4. Recipient-specific attributes. The desired tasks are individually trained and depend entirely on specific needs the veteran may have.

About North Edge K9

Owned by Christian Stickney , North Edge K9 operates year-round in an indoor training facility at their headquarters in Gorham, Maine. For more information on how to support the team and how to apply to the program visit the website of our partners K9s on The Front Line.