According to the nonprofit organization Companions for Heroes, service dogs provide various life-saving benefits to veterans, from helping to prevent suicidal thoughts to allowing injured vets to return to school or work. The fact of the matter is, when America’s youth valiantly entered the Armed Forces to help safeguard the nation and defend freedom around the world, they put themselves at great risk of developing serious, lifelong issues associated with their personal mental and physical health. Service animals ease the overwhelming, debilitating pains that service members experience after bravely serving their country. Here are some ways service animals assist our military veterans after combat deployments.
They Provide Comfort and Companionship—The number 1 reason why many veterans opt to be partnered with a service animal is to provide them with comfort and companionship. Studies show that interacting with animals can help elicit positive emotions and feelings of affection while also countering emotional numbness and negative feelings commonly reported by veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans with service canines report feeling safe, protected and unconditionally loved by their animals. These animals may be considered emotional support animals because they provide psychological and spiritual benefits to veterans suffering from a mental health condition.
They Aid Disabled Veterans—For military service members who return from deployment with physical disabilities, service animals can be literal life-changers. For example, amputees can be assisted through the help of a service canine who can carry personal items, open doors and pick up dropped items that may be difficult for their owners to reach. Of course, canines can also act as the eyes for soldiers who have developed vision issues or experience blindness after deployment.
They Ease the Pain of PTSD—According to the Sidran Institute for Traumatic Stress Education and Advocacy, PTSD affects 20 percent of adults in the United States, with combat veterans and civilian victims of war especially vulnerable to the disorder. Research indicates that service animals can help people who experience PTSD by lowering stress levels—interacting with animals is proven to increase oxytocin and dopamine levels and decrease cortisol levels. Studies show that veterans with service animals are more likely to sleep better, stay on medications, and enjoy a more self-sufficient life, even when faced with particularly debilitating PTSD symptoms.
They Reduce Flashbacks—Flashbacks are a devastating yet common symptom associated with PTSD and other kinds of trauma. Service animals are able to help interrupt and prevent flashbacks in a number of ways. Importantly, the tactile experience of petting an animal, especially a dog or a cat, can help nudge veterans out of flashbacks and provide an immediate feeling of calm and a reduction in stress and anxiety. When a service animal nudges, paws or licks at their owner, flashbacks dissipate more quickly and fully.
They Help Improve Mental Health—Because of the many points mentioned above, veterans with service animals report better mental health. They are significantly less likely to report unbearable feelings of stress and anxiety and report fewer flashbacks and more calmness compared with veterans who do not have a designated service animal. On top of that, service dogs are known to help reduce suicidal thoughts and prevent serious mental breakdowns. For this reason, service and companion animals are often deployed following national tragedies to help provide feelings of comfort and stability, which lead to stronger mental health.
They Prevent Alcoholism and Drug Use—In addition to PTSD, anxiety disorder, depression, and chronic physical ailments, veterans who have been deployed are at a greater risk of becoming alcoholics and abusing drugs. In fact, service animals have long been used to help prevent and assist in alcohol and drug recovery, and are commonly employed to help rehabilitate recently sober individuals. Animals can help veterans deal directly with these impediments by reducing the life stressors that trigger urges to abuse alcohol or drugs. Canine therapy in particular has been known to help people in recovery and build improved self-worth, which in turn helps them curb a desire to abuse alcohol or drugs as a coping method.
They Lengthen Life Spans—Having any sort of pet, whether a service animal or not, can help you live a longer life. Studies show that dog owners in particular can decrease risk of death by 33 percent and risk of cardiovascular-related death by as much as 36 percent. Veterans who were deployed and have service-related trauma are even more likely to live longer if they have the companionship of a service animal. These animals can help lengthen life by reducing stress, suicidal thoughts, and other physical and mental health issues that are linked to shorter lifespans.
They Help Complete Tasks—Service animals are also uniquely trained to help assist our brave veterans in day-to-day tasks. They’re able to turn on lights, open and close doors, retrieve medications, pick up dropped items and remind owners of certain tasks. These skills are especially important for veterans who returned home from deployment physically injured. These services allow veterans to live more normal, independent lives and to return to school and work within a reasonable timeframe.
Help Enhance Veterans’ Lives with Service Animals
Just as veterans are awarded military medals and ribbons for their selfless service and sacrifice that comes with combat deployments, they should be honorably discharged along with a trained service animal, if desired, to help make the transition easier. There are many organizations that work hard to train service animals in order to enhance the lives of veterans, usually at no cost to the veteran. These organizations rely on donations, grants and fundraisers to cover the expenses associated with the expert training, boarding, and transportation.
If you’d like to help veterans lead a healthier, happier, more manageable life after they’ve risked so much for our freedom and that of others, please consider contributing to the following organizations who provide unique services to our veterans: Freedom Service Dogs, Canine Companions for Independence, K9s for Warriors, Patriot Paws, NEADS and many others.