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Shelter Dogs and PTSD: A Rescue Mission

When a soldier goes to war, the mental torment endured can be debilitating. They often return to foreign surroundings, where everything once familiar is now unrecognizable. When a dog enters a shelter, it may have suffered emotional trauma that can never be expressed, and adapting to shelter life can be lonely and full of dejection.

Animals are being euthanized daily in America, and soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are taking their lives at horrific rates. With this in mind, organizations have started matching shelter dogs with veterans, saving two lives in the process.

Pets for Vets employs a matchmaking process to pair pets with their new owners. The process includes interviews, evaluating which animal would be the best fit based on personality and lifestyle. Once matched, the dog is specifically trained to help with the veteran's conditions. If the selection proves successful, the dog spends time in the home of a professional trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods to teach good manners, basic obedience and other valuable skills. Training can also include becoming comfortable with wheelchairs or crutches, and recognizing panic or anxiety disorders.

K9 Partners for Patriots has a mission of bringing peace and functionality to veterans coping with anxieties from service-related PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma. Through a group technique of service dog training, K9 Partners helps veterans integrate back into a social environment. In classes of no more than 10, the service dog learns to recognize its veteran's triggers, and becomes acutely aware of changes in the veteran's behavior.

Warrior Canine Connection uses a mission-based trauma recovery model to help veterans cope with mental and emotional combat wounds. Veterans interact with their dogs as they move from puppyhood into adult service training. This allows veterans to benefit from a physiological and psychological animal-human connection. As trainers, veterans have the responsibility to teach their dog the world is a safe place, and in so doing, convince themselves of the same.

According to mental health studies, dog owners have lower blood pressure and feel valued. Moreover, interacting with dogs has been shown to elevate oxytocin and dopamine, creating positive feelings and a bonding experience for both the veteran and their pet. Dogs also have calming effects on their owner — just by stroking, sitting next to or playing with a pet is mentally soothing.

Dogs encourage owners to get exercise, which is beneficial for veterans suffering from depression. Walking a dog can also lead to conversations with other dog owners, helping vets become more socially connected and less withdrawn. When veterans with PTSD or other service-related mental health traumas are matched with a rescue dog, both are given a much-needed sense of security. A veteran's mental struggles are eased, while a shelter dog is given another chance to fulfill its life.

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