THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT STATES: a service animal must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks of benefit to a disabled individual in order to be legally elevated from pet status to service animal status. It is the specially trained tasks or work performed on command that legally exempts a service dog and his disabled handler from the “No Pets Allowed” policies of stores, restaurants and other public places under the ADA.
Note: While a dog’s companionship can provide emotional support, comfort or a sense of security, this in and of itself does NOT qualify as a “trained task” or “work” under the ADA, thus it does not give a disabled person the legal right to take that dog out in public as a service dog.
The following list identifies just a few tasks a service dog can be trained to do that would serve to mitigate the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Bring medicine. Dog assists partner to cope with nausea, dizziness, the fear paralysis of PTSD or the sudden waves of terror, chest pains and respiratory distress of a severe panic attack by fetching medication to alleviate the severity of the symptoms.
- Dog is trained to retrieve a small bag with medication from a specific location that he is taught to go to on command
Bring a phone. Enables the individual to contact a family member, doctor, or therapist when experiencing medication side effects, terror or respiratory distress from a panic attack, a flashback, etc.
- Dog is trained to bring the handler a cell phone
Get help. The dog is trained to find another person (at or away from home) and take that person to the individual with the PTSD in the event of a medical crisis.
- Dog is trained to go get a person by name or to simply find any person using a command like “get help”
Provide balance assistance. This behavior is to prevent a injury from a fall for people who experience dizziness due to medication side effects or as a result of injury.
- Dog is trained to assist his handler going up and down stairs by stopping on each step and bracing himself (stiffening his body) on command to steady the person.
- Dog is trained to help his handler get up from the floor and/or rise from a chair.
- A dog is trained to prevent a fall by stiffening his body to provide counter balance if his handler suddenly stumbles or feels dizzy. Training should include a verbal heads up from the handler with a command like “brace” before putting weight on the dog, so he can stiffen his muscles, thus preventing injury to the dog.
Provide tactile stimulation to interrupt emotional overload. Tasks that provide tactile distraction from a disorder’s symptoms can interrupt emotional overload in individuals with a diagnosis like PTSD. These tasks can be used to stop responses to specific triggers at home and in public. They can also be used when an individual experiences nightmares, night terrors, hallucinations or flashbacks. Some dogs do this naturally but training is required to transform it into a task the dog will do immediately on command, reliably in the presence of distractions, anywhere, anytime.
- Dog is trained to put paws up on his handler, whether the handler is seated or standing, on command, as needed to interrupt anything from a panic attack to a fight or flight response. Dog is taught to understand that paws up are only for his handler, no one else.
- If the handler is aware of the onset of a panic attack, the dog can be trained to come to a specific command and paw or nose nudge the handler. The dog can also be trained to be persistent in his pawing or nose nudging until the handler acknowledges the dog, thus signaling that the panic attack is diminishing.
- Dog can be trained to provide deep pressure, laying across the handler’s lap or laying across his body in bed, on the floor or on a sofa.
Wake up handler. Individuals with depression associated with PTSD can become apathetic and want to withdraw from the world. As a result, sometimes getting out of bed in the morning is a challenge. The trained early morning response of a service dog – urging the handler to get up and get moving – has proven effective in breaking the cycle of depression.
- Dog is trained to respond to an alarm clock like a hearing dog. Wakes up his handler by getting up on the bed, nose nudging or pawing. Dog is trained to be insistent.
- Dog can be trained to wake his handler according to an “internal alarm clock” at the same time every day.
Provide an excuse to leave an overwhelming situation. The dog is trained to respond to specific hand signal, body language, or voice command with a behavior like a nose nudge, pawing, or jumping up on the handler. This will allow the handler to easily extricate himself from a difficult situation (too many people, too much noise) because his dog “needs to go out.”
- Dog is trained to “bother” his handler with a specific behavior, providing a plausible excuse to leave.
Finding an exit. Individuals with PTSD may find themselves suddenly overwhelmed in a public place – a potential precursor to a full-blown panic attack or dissociative episode. Like dogs for the blind, other kinds of service dogs can learn to find an exit in a store, hotel lobby or other public building. This is a challenging behavior to teach, especially if the dog ultimately needs to lead his handler to an exit based on symptoms, not on a command. The behavior requires hundreds of repetitions over many months in a variety of places under the guidance of an experienced service dog trainer.
- Dog is taught to find an exit in a public place, initially on command then on his own, to assist his handler in leaving a high-stress situation.
Crowd control. A person’s anxiety about being in tight quarters with other people can be helped by training the service dog to get between his handler and others.
- Dog is trained to brace himself in a stand/stay so that he cannot be jostled out of position. He’s then taught front, left, right and behind, allowing the handler to put him in whatever position is needed, putting space between himself and people who might be crowding him (ex.: in a checkout line at the grocery store). Dog is trained to ignore anyone – other than his handler – who talks to him or reaches down to pet him.
- Dog is trained to “have the handler’s back”: sit/stay behind the handler, butt tight against the handler’s legs, back to the handler. This behavior can be used in places like standing in line at an ATM.
- Dog is trained to rise from a sit or a down, assuming a stand “guarding” position. Done efficiently with a reasonably big service dog, this behavior stops people in their tracks as they approach.
Clear a room. Hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, night terrors or extreme sleep deprivation from depression can lead to a distorted perception of reality. Sometimes a person isn’t sure whether the voices or a noise in another room are real. It can be tremendously reassuring when a service dog is trained to alert to anything unusual in the environment.
- Train the dog to respond to a verbal cue like “check”. The dog can be trained to walk into a room and alert with a bark, a nose nudge or a paw if there is anyone present. It’s likely unnecessary for the dog to actually walk through the entire house or even walk the perimeter of a room, as his sense of smell will alert him to another person’s presence.
Lighting up dark rooms. A service dog can be trained to precede the handler into rooms, hallways or the basement, turning on lights to reduce the handler’s fear of an intruder.
- The dog is trained to use standard light switches or those made specifically for the disabled.
- The dog is trained to precede handler into specific rooms turning on lights one by one.
- The dog is trained to enter a dark house or apartment by himself to switch on lights to reduce the handler’s fear of entering the premises.
Alerting to fluctuating cortisol levels. Dogs can smell the surge of hormones like cortisol that our bodies release in response to stressful situations. Anything they can smell, they can be trained to alert on.
- The dog is trained to put paws up, nose nudge or paw his handler when he smells the fluctuation of cortisol in the handler’s body. Often the handler is unaware this is happening – but with the dog’s intervention – can avoid a panic attack.
Traumatic events that can trigger PTSD
According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common events leading to the development of PTSD include military combat, childhood physical abuse, sexual violence, physical assault or an accident. Other traumatic events can also lead to PTSD, including natural disasters, plane crashes, kidnappings, life-threatening medical diagnoses, terrorist attacks, and other extreme or life-threatening events.