Four-Legged Therapy for PTSD

Specially trained dogs can recognize and calm anxiety before a PTSD-induced anxiety reaction goes too far.

By Karen St. John

PTSD therapy dog.

One beautiful late afternoon, just a few minutes after arriving home from work, I went out to my balcony, pulled my deck chair out of the storage closet, and plunked myself down with a glass of wine and a smile on my face.

The temperature was perfect – the was sun bright. Listening to the neighborhood sounds, I noticed a dog barking just across and down the street. Not a loud, aggressive bark, just a “Hey, family, I love being your dog,” kind of happy bark. It got me to thinking about veterans. If it’s possible to be moved more by one group than another, it is the Vietnam vets who really get to me more than any other veterans group.

It isn’t just because I have relatives and friends who survived the combat hell known as Vietnam. It’s because the Vietnam veterans who were lucky enough to return home often felt they had to hide the fact that they served our country and nearly died for it. They had to remain silent, as if a piece of them had become too nasty to be shared with all those they were willing to die for. “You were good enough to nearly die for me, but don’t embarrass me by sitting at my table with me now,” our society seemed to tell them.

No welcome. Blame. Shame. An ugly time in our nation’s history. The uniform was taken off and stored away, and so was the sense of pride in doing one’s duty. Many veterans kept quiet all their lives about their time served.


And in learning even the least little bit about Vietnam veterans, you learn a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder  (PTSD).

The symptoms continue to develop/persist post the event – long after a trauma has occurred.

For those new to PTSD, this condition has not always been very well known. It took our Vietnam veterans to make the medical community stand up and take the past phrases of “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” more seriously, and acknowledge it publicly. Unfortunately, it still took about 25 years after the veterans returned home for anyone in key positions to begin figuring out what really was going on.

There is the reason it is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and not Current-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The symptoms continue to develop/persist post the event – long after a trauma has occurred. Basically, and certainly not inclusively, there are four types of symptoms of PTSD: Reliving the event, avoidance, numbing, and feeling keyed up. It is important to note, however, that not all traumatizing events create PTSD. No one really knows why some people experience traumatizing events without being permanently traumatized, while others experience a trauma and are forever hurting from it.

Not long ago the New York Times reported that there had been almost one combat veteran committing suicide per day, an average higher than that of non-military citizens. The story added, “Suicide rates of military personnel and combat veterans have risen sharply since 2005, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan intensified. Recently, the Pentagon established a Defense Suicide Prevention Office.”

Good grief, Charlie Brown. Or, maybe I should say, Snoopy, where are you? We need you.

Therapy dog to the rescue

Tim Cahill with PTSD therapy dog.

Tim Cahill with his PTSD therapy dog.

Enter a new kind of dog called, “PTSD therapy dog.” These wonderful therapy dogs are trained to help people who suffer from PTSD. The dogs have a huge, positive impact on the quality of life for our combat veterans. But don’t take my word for it. I’m not a veteran. I don’t suffer from PTSD. My friend, Tim Cahill is a veteran and he does suffer from PTSD, and this is his story.

Tim is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who suffers from PTSD following two combat tours and his years as a firefighter on a rescue squad.

“The thing about PTSD,” Tim explains, “is sometimes you can be managing just fine, then all of a sudden something triggers an anxiety reaction. Suddenly your adrenaline is pumping. You’re nervous – panicking. Your fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, and you’re not coping well.

“Anything can set the trigger off. Over time, you start to recognize some triggers. It can be a sound,  a  smell, a memory, or a sight. Others sneak up on you or you can’t avoid them. To avoid them means locking yourself in the house from the world.” Tim didn’t want to lock himself out of the world. He was grateful for his life and wanted to embrace it.

Tim owns two dogs: Penelope, a 10-pound, half long-haired Chihuahua and half terrier – and Jewel, a 4-pound long-haired Chihuahua. Both have been trained and certified as therapy dogs. Not what you visualized, is it? Not the German shepherd, the Irish setter, or the Labrador. Just family dogs, like Snoopy. Tim wanted small dogs, saying, “They can go places less noticeably than large dogs. They are less threatening to other people, and they have a longer life span than larger breeds.”

How do these dogs help, exactly?

One of Tim’s triggers – something that would bring on the PTSD symptoms – would be a crowd and the noise that goes with it. To someone without PTSD, it’s a blend of different sounds. To Tim, it becomes chaos, overwhelming and threatening. He wants to fight his way out of the noise, the crowds, the horrible turmoil, and get out to freedom.

These therapy dogs are trained to help people who suffer from PTSD. The dogs have a huge positive impact on the quality of life.

Penelope senses the start of Tim’s anxiety, and puts her head and shoulder against him, pushing hard to get his attention on her. When he looks at her, her ears go back and her eyes lock onto his. If people push in close to Tim during this critical reaction time, she’ll turn and growl at them, warning them to back off. Then she jumps up against Tim’s leg, insisting he pick her up. He does. She snuggles into his chest and there he stands – a tall, strong, athletic man with a little puppy dog in his arms, snuggled against his neck. Tim is forced to pay attention to the little dog and not the trigger that started his anxiety. What people do not see is Tim’s heart rate and breathing slowing back down to normal.

The other dog, Jewel, also reacts quickly to early signals or triggers, before Tim’s panic sets in and before his PTSD symptoms get going. Her style is as different as her personality. She will stand up on her back legs and dance around in front of Tim, or throw her front paws on his leg. When Tim picks her up, she snuggles up against his neck, licking – then snuggles her head again to his neck. Because she reacts before a symptom attack kicks in, her actions often result in fewer symptoms, and sometimes even stops the attack before it gets started.

Tim doesn’t know what he would do without his dogs. “Without them, I wouldn’t be able make my day-to-day life,” he says.

So why do dogs have to be certified as therapy dogs? Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), therapy dogs are considered the same as a certified service animal. They are covered by the ADA and can legally go anywhere a service animal can. Tim takes his dogs every-where – restaurants, doctors’ offices, retail stores, movie -theaters, and hospitals. He never knows when something will trigger his PTSD.

Tim also found another benefit to having his own personal therapy dogs: Because they are certified, they can be shared. Penelope and Jewel go to nursing homes to cheer up the residents. They go from room to room to visit the residents, who smile when the dog arrives. Tim says, “Because they are small they can easily be put onto the bed or on the lap of a person in a wheelchair so they can go love on the person. It’s amazing what five minutes of love does for the residents. The dogs seem to instinctively know what each person needs and how to give it to them.”

Training his dogs to be therapy dogs has given Tim something more than just help with his PTSD. “Caring for the dogs and the unconditional love they give us makes us better people,” he says.

If you are suffering

If you think you have PTSD, reach out to someone. Other veterans, your doctors, your minister or priest, your friends, or the several organizations that offer help. If you are interested in a therapy dog, or in training your own dog to become a certified service dog, look for any of the many organizations that train dogs specifically for PTSD.

Not all war veterans suffer from PTSD. But all war veterans were put into abnormal situations and were often required to perform in ways contrary to their beliefs in order to survive.

To these veterans I say: You did the right thing. And to those of you suffering with PTSD: It is nothing to be ashamed of.  You took care of this country. Now reach out, and let us take care of you.

The dog in my neighborhood had stopped barking, and the sun was starting to set. I picked up my empty wine glass, got up and turned to go back into my condo. I felt peaceful. Yes. There is hope in the world. For all of us.


Karen St. JohnKaren St. John has been a veterans’ advocate since 2005, concentrating in PTSD/health-care issues. Her oldest brother is a Vietnam veteran. Visit her web site at