Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Preventing the Panic of PTSD

Dogs can do miraculous things.

Over the last 15 years there has really been extensive research into Service Dogs for PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, and to what degree they can provide assistance to their handlers. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that ranges in severity and is different for each individual. It is among one of the "invisible illnesses" we are passionate about bringing light to. In persons with PTSD, emotional reactivity is distorted as a result of a traumatic event. Many people associate PTSD with members of the military who have braved life-threatening conditions and faced realities that are unimaginable.  While service members make up a large population of persons with PTSD, the condition can be triggered by a variety of other events such as:
  • Motor Vehicle Accident
  • Physical or Sexual Abuse
  • Natural Disaster
  • Home Invasion
  • Abduction and/or captivity
  • Plane crash
  • Bombings
  • Any other event in which someone experiences extreme physical or emotional trauma

This level of anxiety can be debilitating for the person experiencing it, and the Psychiatric Service Dog Society established in a study completed in 2009, that eighty two percent of dog handlers who battle with PTSD have a marked declination in symptoms that accompany the disorder. To understand how a PTSD Service Dogs work, its beneficial to first understand the condition.

What is PTSD and how does it affect someone?

We all have what they refer to as a "fight or flight" response that accompanies the threat of danger. When our brain registers a person or situation as threatening the hypothalamus activates two areas of the brain, the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system, and a detailed, complex system is activated

For our purpose here, we will skip dissecting the process and discuss the end result of this system: hormone release. A multitude of "stress hormones" (the two most commonly talked about are epinephrine [adrenaline] and norepinephrine) are released into the blood stream and the body responds to this by:
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Pupils dilate
    • To intake the maximum amount of light
  • Veins in the skin constrict
    • To allow more blood flow to the major organs
    • This is responsible for causing a "chill"
  • Blood sugar increases
  • Smooth muscle relaxes
    • Allowing more oxygen to reach the lungs
  • Muscles tense up
    • This is responsible for "goose bumps"
    • There is a tiny muscle in the skin called the arrector pili which is attached to the hair. When the muscles tense up involuntarily, the arrector pili muscle is flexed causing the hair to stand up.
  • Nonessential systems for immediate life sustenance temporarily shut down
    • As to allow more energy for emergency physical reactions
    • Some of these would be systems such as the digestive system and the immune system
  • Attention to detail is paralyzed
    • The brain is able to focus only on the "big threat" until it is identified and corrected
So as you can see, what may seem to someone on the outside as one being "a little anxious" or "kind of nervous" can have big effects on the person experiencing it. The trouble with PTSD is that the part of the brain that is stimulated during a threat has been altered by a big event, and small "triggers" can send the brain into "fight or flight" even when there is nothing to be feared.

Have you ever almost been in a car accident? Remember that moment when you tapped your brakes and realized you were on ice and you slid forward stopping centimeters from a back bumper? Or think of the time that you held your breath as you watched a semi accidentally blow through a stop sign and come deathly close to T-Boning another vehicle. Can you remember the feeling immediately after the moment passes? You can feel your heart in your throat, your body is icy, and your hands feel clammy. Imagine feeling that up to twenty times in one day. People with PTSD battle something very similar. Many, every day events may "trigger" their brain to go into fight or flight mode, and struggling with it can be exhausting. Some people with PTSD even experience "flashbacks" where their brain doesn't only mimic the feelings they had during their dangerous situation, but also visually replays the event.

How PTSD Service Dogs can help

So what does a PTSD Service Dog do to help to make life more manageable for these individuals? Well, what comes to mind immediately for most people are the fuzzy feelings that any cuddly, playful puppy will bring to your heart. There is Science behind, what I like to call, the "Aww effect". Dogs have been used for years in programs at prisons, hospitals, schools, and foster care facilities to help provide a positive atmosphere for the individuals in them. Studies have shown that petting a dog releases oxytocin in the human brain, the "feel good" hormone. This is the hormone that is associated with happiness, affection, and pleasure, but what defines a dog as a Service Dog and not an Emotional Support Animal or Therapy Dog?

Emotional Support Animals (ESA) or Therapy dogs, are used in a variety of different programs and are shown to be highly effective. However ESA, Therapy Dogs, and Service Dogs are not interchangeable terms, and classifying them is not just a matter of being politically correct. They are actually vastly different in their duties, and they are not all afforded the same legal liberties. The major, identifying difference is that a Service Dog must be individually trained to perform a specific task for it's handler to mitigate a disability.

A PTSD Service Dog can perform tasks from two different categories. Those are 1) tasks that the dog is trained to physically perform, and 2) a task that a dog is trained to perform based on a reaction that is obtained by leveraging canine natural senses - basically training them to communicate what they're naturally already able to sense.

Just a few of the tasks that the dog can be trained to physically perform:
  • Accompany the person outside the home
  • Wake the person
  • Turn on a light
  • Define personal space by not allowing others into a handler's predetermined preferred space.
  • "Take me home" command
    • Forgetfulness often accompanies PTSD and during an attack one can feel overwhelmed and become disoriented.
  • Tactile stimulation for re-orientation
    • Licking, pawing, scratching at their handler to help them "snap out" of a flashback.

Tasks performed based on a reaction obtained by leveraging canine natural senses:
  • Medication reminder
    • Dogs are known to have a remarkable "internal alarm clock" and this can be sharpened. Dogs can be trained to retrieve a pill organizer and bring it to their handler at predetermined, trained, times of the day - and be persistent until the medications are ingested.
  • Clear a room for safety
    • Search the room for human presence, both obvious and hidden, using canine sense.
  • "Watch my back" command
    • Alert handler of someone preparing to enter a room, come around the corner, or walk up to the team.
  • Alert to emotional escalation (AKA: Prevent a flashback)
    • Acknowledging the early stages of "fight of flight" through sensing the chemical changes discussed above, prior to or immediately as they happen.

Obtaining a PTSD Service Dog

SDWR has developed a proprietary and very unique, client-based program for training and placing Service Dogs. It is important to recognize that just as every other medical treatment, Service Dogs are not for everyone. While we have watched first hand how the placement of a Service Dog has vastly improved one's quality of life, it is also important to note that having a Service Dog is a significant responsibility that comes with a lifestyle. If you think that you or someone you love could possibly benefit from having a PTSD Service Dog, please do not hesitate to contact us to discuss your situation. We can help you determine if our program is right for you. To find out more information regarding cost and the training process, feel free to browse our blog or view what our clients have to say on our Facebook page.

To contact us please call 1-540-543-2307, or fill out a Contact Form