Service dog can be a veteran's best friend

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Guide dogs are well-established as invaluable assistants for those who are blind, and increasingly service dogs are being used by people with other sorts of physical disability. But they can also be a boon for people suffering from psychological difficulties. The Dutch Service Dog Foundation (Hulphond Nederland) has, for the first time, placed a dog with a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Soldiers often see and experience terrible things when deployed in conflict zones. But the nature of their work means they tend not to complain or talk about these experiences when they get back home. And that can lead to serious problems as service men and women struggle to re-adjust to ‘normal’ life with memories of death and violence still haunting them.

American organisations are experienced in placing dogs with traumatised veterans according to Eric Bouwer, director of Hulphond Nederland. "A Dutch veteran told us about the use of service dogs for soldiers, and that got us interested. We looked very carefully at the Americans to see what dogs needed to learn to be helpful to people with PTSD and then got started. It’s a logical extension of the work we already do with service dogs”.

Sensory warnings
PTSD manifests itself in various symptoms. Sufferers sleep badly, are irritable, depressed, can become instantly aggressive or display violent shock reactions. Often they are tormented by vivid nightmares and flashbacks during which they re-live traumatic experiences. An estimated 7,000 Dutch veterans suffer from some form of PTSD.

The usefulness of service dogs for veterans is comparable to the way they can help those who suffer from a severe form of epilepsy, experiencing more than ten attacks per day. “We humans have no idea of the sensory abilities of dogs”, explains Bouwer. “Dogs are so good at sensing the very early signals of an attack. They can take preventive action as much as half an hour in advance. It’s the same with PTSD veterans. For instance, dogs can react to tiny changes in sleep patterns which indicate a nightmare”.

Teddy goes everywhere
John Kunstman served in the UN force in Lebanon and is the first Dutch veteran to be paired up with a specially trained dog. He lost a leg during the mission and developed a severe stress disorder. He was too scared to go outdoors alone and suffered anxiety dreams every night. But now he has Teddy. “He goes everywhere with me. I even went to the National Veteran’s Day in The Hague recently. Me, in a crowd of 85,000 people! I’d never have dared without Teddy.”

More than a pet
Hulphond Nederland is also in contact with soldiers who’ve served in Afghanistan. “There are such distressing cases. People who don’t dare go out because they see an enemy behind every tree. In the army, soldiers are always in pairs or groups for protection. A dog can fill that role. Of course, a pet dog can also help if veterans are simply lonely and want companionship, but a well-trained service dog has extra value. For instance, it will intervene if it senses aggression. It can lead the veteran away before a situation gets out of hand.

It’s difficult to say just how many cases there are where a service dog would be of benefit. “We’re training seven dogs at the moment, but I think there are at least 500 veterans we could be helping”. It costs around 10,000 euros to properly train and place a service dog, and to provide follow-up assistance. Hulphond Nederland is dependent on private sponsors and donations. A veterans’ support group is financing the costs of the first seven ‘soldier dogs’ and the foundation is hoping that if the project is a success, the Defence Ministry may also contribute.