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PTSD And Dogs: How Service Dogs Help War Veterans Cope With Life After Service

23 December 2015, 6:13 am EST By Alyssa Navarro Tech Times
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If you've read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective fiction featuring Sherlock Holmes, or watched the TV series or films about the famous detective, then you very well know Dr. John H. Watson, Holmes' best friend and companion.

In Conan Doyle's story, Watson is a medical practitioner who was a former war veteran. The modern version of Watson, brought to life by Martin Freeman in BBC's "Sherlock," suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after returning home from Afghanistan. Watson had violent nightmares and visions of his past life. Watson went to a therapist who told him to create a blog for his experiences.

If it weren't for meeting Holmes and getting involved with the detective's strange lifestyle of solving crime, Watson would have had to suffer more from his condition.

While Watson is only a fictional character, his story rings true in the thousands of war veterans who come back to civilian life as soon as they finish their duties abroad.

The Story of Robert Soliz

For Robert Soliz, a former Army Specialist who lives in California, even going inside the movie theater was difficult because of certain things like the dark, the crowds of people, and the murmurs.

Soliz recalled that every time he went inside the cinema, he couldn't help but scan his surroundings for anyone who might stab him from behind.

In 2005, Soliz was discharged after serving in South Baghdad. Since then, however, he had been swept by anxiety, fear, depression, and substance abuse. He also couldn't show affection or hug his kids.

Soliz decided to go to Palo Alto V.A. Medical Center for therapy, and participated in Paws for Purple Hearts, a nationwide experimental program for veterans with PTSD. These war veterans were paired with either a Labrador or a golden retriever.

For six weeks, veterans under the program would spend time with a service dog, training the animal to be a mobility-assistance for them.

When he talked about his progress, Soliz said he credits the treatment for saving his life. He said his life is slowly returning to normal. He is now able to go to the movies without panicking, as well as embrace and kiss his two kids.

The Story of Reedy Hopkins

Like Soliz, Air Force veteran Reedy Hopkins always felt on guard whenever he was in public places.

"I quit going to crowded areas," said Hopkins. He said he used to love walking to the National Mall or going into museums, but now, he couldn't enjoy it. He said he was constantly on guard, looking around, watching everyone's movements.

"I still have a hard time going into a restaurant and not sitting with my back to the wall," he said.

Hopkins had served in Iraq for 28 years. He is one of the thousands of veterans who have shared their stories on the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) National Center for PTSD website called AboutFace.

The VA is currently conducting an ongoing study about the benefits of having service dogs for veterans with PTSD. The study, which began early this 2015 and will end in 2018, enrolled 230 veterans with PTSD who all came from Iowa City, Portland and Atlanta.

How Do Service Dogs Help War Veterans?

Previous studies showed that dogs are effective in soothing veterans with PTSD. These animals draw out even the most isolated personalities. Having to praise these dogs helps veterans with PTSD to overcome their emotional numbness, experts said.

With dogs that are knowledgeable of service commands, the PTSD patient can develop his ability to communicate better and to become assertive without being aggressive.

Meg Daley Olmert of Warrior Canine Connection said spending time with dogs has positive effects such as increased levels of oxytocin.

"Oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects-the opposite of PTSD symptoms," said Olmert.

Meanwhile, in the ongoing VA study, researchers said they will compare the benefits of assigning service dogs and emotional support dogs to veterans.

"An emotional support dog is a very well-behaved pet that provides comfort and companionship," said Dr. Michael Fallon, the chief veterinarian in VA. "They're not trained to do specific tasks that address the disability, whereas a service dog is."

Researchers are hoping to find positive results at the end of the study in order to further help PTSD treatments for war veterans.

Photo : Amanda Fultz | Flickr

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