Owning a dog can lift your mood or help you feel less stressed. Some people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) find that service dogs or emotional support dogs (see below for descriptions) help them manage PTSD symptoms. Research to support these claims is still at an early stage.
Evidence-based therapies and medications for PTSD are supported by research. We encourage you to learn more about these treatments because it is difficult to draw strong conclusions from the few studies on dogs and PTSD that have been done.
Dogs can make great pets. Having a dog as a pet can have benefits for anyone, including people with PTSD. For example, dogs:
Recovering from PTSD is a process. Evidence-based treatments for PTSD help people do things they have been avoiding because of their PTSD, such as standing close to a stranger or going into a building without scanning it for danger first. Evidence-based treatments can also help people feel better. Dogs can help you deal with some parts of living with PTSD, but they are not a substitute for effective PTSD treatment.
Although people with PTSD who have a service dog or emotional support dog may feel comforted by the animal, there is some chance he or she may continue to believe that they cannot do certain things on their own. For example, if the dog keeps strangers from coming too close, the owner will not have a chance to learn that they can handle this situation without the dog. Depending on a dog can get in the way of the recovery process for PTSD. Based on what we know from research, evidence-based treatment provides the best chance of recovery from PTSD.
A service dog is a dog trained to do specific tasks for a person that he or she cannot do because of a disability. Service dogs can pick things up, guide a person with vision problems, or help someone who falls or loses balance easily. For example, a service dog can help a blind person walk down the street or get dangerous things out of the way when someone is having a seizure.
Protecting someone, giving emotional support, or being a companion do not qualify a dog to be a service animal. To be a service dog, a dog must go through training. Usually the dog is trained to:
Because the handler depends on the service dog's help, service dogs are allowed to go to most public places the handler goes. This is the case even if it is somewhere pet dogs usually cannot go, like restaurants or on airplanes. But there are a few exceptions. For example, service dogs can be asked to leave if they are not behaving well.
An emotional support animal is a pet that helps an owner with a mental disability. Emotional support dogs help owners feel better by giving friendship and love. These dogs are also called comfort dogs or support dogs.
An emotional support dog does not need special training. Generally, a regular pet can be an emotional support dog if a mental health provider writes a letter saying that the owner has a mental health condition or disability and needs the dog's help for his or her health or treatment.
In most states, emotional support dogs do not have special permission to go to all public places like service dogs do. But, emotional support dogs are sometimes allowed special consideration. For example, the owner may be able to get permission to have an emotional support pet in a house or apartment that does not normally allow dogs. Or, the owner may be able to get permission to fly on a plane together with the dog.
To get special permissions, the dog owner needs to show the mental health provider's letter to the landlord or airline. Sometimes, the landlord or airline will also want to see information about the mental health provider, such as a copy of their professional license.
Pets, service animals, and emotional support dogs need responsible owners. Dogs require constant attention and care. It is a good idea to discuss getting a dog with your doctor or family before making the decision. If you have PTSD and are worried that it may be hard for you to provide a safe, caring home for a dog, it may be good to wait until after you get treatment for your PTSD and feel better.
You may already have a dog that helps you feel better or do things you would not otherwise do. But learning more about evidence-based PTSD treatments is important. Unlike people who work with service dogs because they have permanent disabilities (like blindness or seizure disorders), people with PTSD can get better with treatment.