Column: Dogs proving best treatment for injured vets

Denise Williams | 5/5/2014, 10:52 a.m.
Canine companions are especially helpful in giving overtaxed soldiers a break because they'll stand guard while their owners sleep, experts ...
A dog protects a soldier as he sleeps at an airport in Indianapolis.


Denise Williams

This guest column was written by Denise Williams, a Plainfield resident and Gold Star mother who writes a blog, "Uncommon Sense," for chicagonow.com.


Commercial for Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation

TV commercial from Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation (KNGF Geleidehonden) shows the assistance a veteran dog can offer in helping a military veteran who is coping with severe war related trauma.

TV commercial from Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation (KNGF Geleidehonden) shows the assistance a veteran dog can offer in helping a military veteran who is coping with severe war related trauma.

Dogs have been used as instruments of war since man’s best friend became domesticated. It is part of the nature of dogs to protect its pack, even if that pack includes two-legged members. The idea that dogs can help heal the injured spirit of a warrior is not new either but is finally getting the attention of mental health professionals in the military and veteran communities.

Anyone who has ever had a dog as a companion and not just a pet will attest to the emotional bond reciprocated by our canine friends. Who has not experienced, or at least heard of a story in which a well-loved dog seems to know when his human needs to pet his flank? Or the countless stories of dogs who lay upon the grave of their master, seeming to mourn?

Scientists say dogs do not feel, at least not in the way people do. They call this attribution of strictly human emotions anthropomorphizing. But how do they explain the tender and gentle way a dog approaches its crying human? Obviously, the dog senses something and is reacting but choose to call it emotion and risk being scorned as a sentimentalist.

Most of us who have been fortunate enough to share our lives and homes with a four-legged companion know the difference between what science understands, can prove and categorize and what is reality. Dogs feel. Certainly differently and without the attendant intellectual self-reflection of humans, but dogs certainly react to our emotions.

When we are angry our tone of voice and even the volume causes a reaction in our dog’s behavior. But how to explain suddenly getting leaned on or a having a head deposited in your lap when we aren’t making a sound, just sitting and silently crying? Perhaps they smell something in our tears. Perhaps they sense it in some other way that is contained in that mysterious bond they share with us.

Science does offer an explanation for this, at least in part. It is now proven dogs react to elevated heart rates, rapid breathing and even the subtle physiological changes that accompany anxiety in a human. Some dogs can be trained to do this better than others, and those very special animals become Service Dogs.

These dogs are not trained to assist the blind, the hearing impaired or those with physical disabilities. They are taught to react, with love, simple companionship and even specific actions to ease the emotional distress of their human partners. One of the most beautifully poignant and effective demonstrations is in the video below. It is actually a commercial for The Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation.

What is most interesting is that the VA has recently released a report on the benefits of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress getting a dog, even if the pet is not specifically trained. Dogs encourage their humans to get out of the house, go for a walk and meet new people. Walking a dog down the street is a sure way to elicit smiles from strangers, making public encounters less anxiety inducing. The VA is still withholding full support of Service Dogs as an alternative treatment for PTS, noting that counseling and medication is still, in their opinion, the best treatment.