Benefits of Having a Service Dog

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By Elena Beplay and Rescue 22 Foundation

Service dogs can augment many different aspects of daily life for people struggling from a physical or mental disability. Here at the Rescue 22 Foundation, we provide task trained service dogs to veterans with service-connected injuries that have resulted in a diagnosis of PTS or other medical and mobility challenges free of charge. We also partner with the USF School of Public Health in order to continue research towards the efficacy of service dogs as a medical tool.

Before we dive into the story of one of our recipients, maybe you have thought about what services a dog can provide and why someone might need a service dog.

Service dogs can provide a variety of task trained jobs specific to help those with physical and emotional disabilities. Specifically, the dogs can be trained to perform tasks related to ambulatory problems, visual impairments and mental disabilities. Trained tasks could include: picking up objects for the owner, retrieving water or medications, turning on and off lights, calling a medical alert system, alerting family members, guiding the owner through daily obstacles, providing brace support for standing or sitting, providing wheelchair pulling, interrupting panic attacks or PTSD episodes, or providing consolation from chronic depression and emotional distress. Dogs can also be trained to provide different types of therapy such as deep pressure therapy and positional therapy. For centuries, man’s best friend has been up for the job!

In order to perform a service, the dog must be highly trained by a reputable trainer. The dog should meet specific criteria in the area of breed, age, health and behavior. The trainer should have significant experience training reputable service dogs, and knowledgeable in dog behavior. Choosing the perfect helpful companion is not an easy task, but we strive to make it a seamless process for the veteran.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common reason for someone to have a service dog. Our foundation specifically deals with this disability the most often. PTSD can occur from any traumatic event; it is not limited to combat alone. Symptoms are varied; however, many experience suicidal thoughts, recurring memories and nightmares, sleeplessness, a loss of interest in life or feeling numb, anger, irritation and fear. PTSD can thus impact their everyday life. Research suggests that psychiatric service dogs may be an effective complementary treatment option. It has been found that disrupting episodes of anxiety ranks is among the most important tasks a service dog can provide.

James, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was one of our first recipients of a service dog. Although a veteran, his PTSD was not combat related. James lost his son to a very traumatic event in which James was the first on scene. Following his death, James had a difficult time functioning in society and was now alone in his home. He couldn’t sleep, suffered from depression, and was prescribed a significant amount of medications. Hopeful, James reached out to our foundation and we went to work placing him with his service dog Zara.

Zara is a Belgian Malinois task trained by Coastline K9 and customized to James. She responds to panic attacks and anxiety by disrupting his distress. She senses when he is having an episode and will rush to him providing tactile stimulation by jumping on him, licking or nudging. She wakes James up when he is having nightmares and provides a companion for his daily life. After receiving Zara, James was able to ditch his sleep medication and get back to a social life.

“Zara gives me a purpose again. I can leave the house, be social, and get back to a normal life. She goes everywhere with me.” James says.

Zara wears a service dog vest and collar that is properly marked with “service dog” patches and “do not pet” patches visible to the public. James is an information technologist specialist at a local hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he takes Zara to work with him every day. She is trained to be neutral in public settings and pay attention to James’s needs. Outside of work, both James and Zara enjoy competing in numerous “GORUCK” events and kayaking. When asked about some of the difficulties of taking Zara everywhere James said, “I have flown on a plane with Zara three times with no issues from Airline staff about having a service dog. When we go to restaurants, I choose to respect others around me by sitting a good distance from other customers, but I have never had an issue taking her to restaurants.”

“I recommend getting a service dog; it really makes a difference in daily life and gives me purpose. Just make sure you are getting the dog for the right reasons and continue follow up training.”

James’s story provides an opportunity to share insight into the daily life of living with PTSD and having a service dog. He is a testament to what our Foundation strives to provide and the strength of others experiencing similar situations. For more information, visit Rescue22Foundation.org or email Byron Beplay with Coastline K9 at byron.beplay@gmail.com.