(LifeWire) -- Jo Hanna Schaffer's dog is more than a best friend. The 67-year-old veteran, a former Army medic, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and three years ago, she decided to get a service dog, a Chihuahua named Cody. Cody barks if someone is approaching from behind and cuddles with her when she is depressed.
With Cindy, a Bernese mountain dog, by her side, retired Air Force Capt. Karen Alexander can leave her home without fear
"I never took a pill for PTSD that did as much for me as Cody has done," says the Billerica, Massachusetts, resident, who no longer takes medication for the disorder.
Schaffer is one of a growing number of veterans with PTSD who are turning to an alternative therapy: psychiatric service dogs.
Like guide dogs for the blind, psychiatric service dogs aid people with mental illnesses, from anxiety disorder to bipolar disorder to PTSD. The dogs are trained to know when their owners are depressed or having a panic attack, for example, and the animals might calm them down by curling up in their lap or giving a nudge. Watch dogs who help calm troops on frontlines of war »
For five years, Persian Gulf War veteran Karen Alexander, 52, of Pensacola, Florida, has relied on Cindy, a Bernese mountain dog that can sense when Alexander is having an anxiety attack.
"She'll come up and touch me, and that is enough of a stimulus to break the loop, bring me back to reality," says the retired Air Force captain. "Sometimes I'll scratch my hand until it's raw and won't realize until she comes up to me and brings me out. She's such a grounding influence for me."
More veterans diagnosed
The use of service dogs for mental illness has emerged in the past decade, says Dr. Joan Esnayra, founder and president of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society. Esnayra coined the term "psychiatric service dog" in 1997 and has worked with thousands of people who are using the animals. She estimates that the society's online community is adding more than 400 members each year.
The number of veterans diagnosed with PTSD is increasing as well: Young veterans are three times as likely as veterans older than 40 to be diagnosed with PTSD or another mental illness, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the 750,000 veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 100,000 have sought mental-health treatment from the government, and about half of those have been diagnosed with PTSD.
Esnayra is in talks with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center about developing a program to train and place dogs with soldiers diagnosed with PTSD to try to help stem the problems.
The society conducted a small survey of 95 members about the benefits of using service dogs. Of the 71 who responded, "an overwhelming amount of people reported that, since partnering with a dog, their refractory symptoms have diminished and their use of medication has also somewhat decreased," Esnayra says. Refractory symptoms include flashbacks of traumatic events, threatening dreams, being unable to sleep through the night, panic attacks and thrashing.
Costs and care
The cost of a dog can vary widely, Esnayra says, depending on whether the animal is being obtained through an professional organization or through a private trainer. Professional organizations like the St. Francis of Assisi Service Dog Foundation in Roanoke, Virginia, which have their own breeding programs, may spend upwards of $20,000 to produce a dog, but charge applicants only a few hundred dollars by offsetting the expense with corporate donations, she says.
Other organizations and private trainers that obtain animals from shelters rather than operate a breeding program may charge $4,000 to $15,000, but Esnayra cautions that not all trainers have a good track record of producing reliable service dogs. "The shelter is a higher risk source for service dogs. Sometimes dogs are placed and paid for and the dog still fails to perform as promised," Esnayra says. Insurance typically doesn't cover the cost of a service dog, she adds, although certain expenses may be tax-deductible.
Training a service dog is a time-intensive task. All animals are trained in three domains: basic obedience, public access skills, and disability-related assistance. Depending on the breed and the duties that the dog will handle, training (which typically begins when pups are 8 weeks old) may take one to two years, Esnayra says.
The dog's presence may prompt endless, probing questions from well-meaning, inquisitive strangers. Friends and family may not understand that the dog must always accompany its owner. And sometimes, owners may have to negotiate with landlords or employers who otherwise might not be keen on having a dog present.
"Even though the law is on the side of the disabled person, this process can become fractious if the employer, landlord, or school wants to make life difficult for the handler," Esnayra says.
Help with social isolation
Callie Wight, a clinician with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, has suggested psychiatric service dogs to several patients in the past five years. It's not official VA policy to place service dogs with patients PTSD, but some clinicians like Wight do recommend them to their clients, she says.
Wight counsels female veterans who are victims of sexual trauma like assault, harassment or rape, and, often, diagnosed with PTSD or depression stemming from the trauma. Psychiatric service dogs help with the social isolation that is common for such patients. The owners must walk the dog, go to the vet and so on, Wight explains, "drawing the trauma survivor out of her home and out of her isolated, barricaded existence."
Dogs also serve as trustworthy companions, and Wight says this sense of companionship and safety can help the survivor transition back into a normal lifestyle.
Alexander says her first service dog, Clover, helped her overcome social isolation. After retiring in 1994, Alexander had a nervous breakdown and became housebound. She wanted to stay in bed all day, but having the dog forced her to get out.
"It became such an asset in my life," Alexander says. "When I couldn't get out for me, I had to get out for the dog." E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to web publishers. Joan Shim is a freelance writer and former editor at Pet Product News.
All About Dogs • Veterans' Affairs