When Gabe Nutter returned from Iraq with PTSD, he was sure that he could handle it himself. But after struggling with his own out of control behavior, sleep issues and his need to always be alert for danger, he admitted that he needed help.
“The VA provided counseling and helped me to begin to put the pieces back together, but there was still something missing.” said Nutter, formerly a cavalry scout in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division “One of the guys I worked with had a specially trained service dog to help him cope with his PTSD. The dog was amazing and I knew that was for me.”
Fortunately, Nutter knew of an agency that trained service dogs for veterans with PTSD, but many other veterans search long and hard for organizations that will provide them with well trained and temperament tested dogs.
With more than 50,000 wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, the ADI Industry began placing service dogs to mitigate their physical disabilities; amputations, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and back and neck problems.
As the number of Veteran Service Dog teams increased, programs placing such dogs realized that most of the veterans had post-traumatic stress (PTSD) from their combat experiences and such symptoms were more problematic for them than their physical injuries. “They were actually utilizing the tasks trained to help with their physical disabilities to mitigate their PTSD” explains Sheila O’Brien the Vice President of Assistance Dogs International (ADI).
Meeting the needs of veterans with PTSD
O’Brien enlisted the expertise of psychiatric social worker Dr. Cynthia Crosson in 2008, to design a program, to meet the needs of veterans with PTSD. The Trauma Assistance Dog (TAD) Program, the first such program in the country, implemented by Crosson, became so successful that ever more veterans applied for service dogs to help them cope with their PTSD.
The demand for dogs to help with military-related PTSD led to the need for some standardization to protect both veterans and the public from poorly trained dogs.
“In recent years, a variety of organizations and private trainers have offered service dogs to veterans with PTSD but there have been no standards governing what dogs are appropriate and how they will be trained, “said O’Brien. As an accreditor for the industry, O’Brien knows well the importance of a well-thought-out structure.
Standards for service dogs assisting with PTSD
Assistance Dogs International (ADI), charged with accrediting service dog agencies across the world that meet minimum standards governing selection, placement, and use of assistance dogs, decided to develop appropriate standards for service dogs assisting with PTSD.
ADI member Nancy Fierier of Susquehanna Service Dogs was appointed in 2010 to chair a committee to develop “’best practices’ for the placement of service dogs with those with PTSD. This committee’s work was presented at two ADI International Conferences; in Barcelona in 2012 and in Denver in 2014 and later became the basis for the ADI Provisional Guidelines for the placement of PTSD Service Dogs webinar that is available for members on the ADI website.
In 2015, ADI commissioned a committee of four representatives from various ADI accredited service dog agencies and two experts in PTSD and veterans’ services to develop a framework of guidelines on which future standards could be based.
Over the next eighteen months, O’Brien of America’s VetDogs, Sarah Birman of Canine Companions for Independence, Ken Kirsch also of America’s VetDogs and Nancy Fierer former Executive Director of Susquehanna Service Dogs in consultation with Dr. Cynthia Crosson and Dr. Michael Jaffe combined knowledge of a variety of existing programs as well as treatment strategies for veterans with PTSD to create guidelines for programs seeking to train and place these specialized dogs. Once these guidelines were worked, reworked and agreed upon, Nancy Fierer, chairperson of the ADI standards and ethics committee was given the task of developing the guidelines into definitive standards.
“This was a great committee and together we worked carefully, word by word, to be sure that it represented what we all felt was important, to ensure successful placements of service dogs with veterans with PTSD,” said Fierer.
Once the standards are ratified by the ADI membership, any service dog organizations seeking accreditation for programs to place dogs with military- related PTSD will have to meet these standards.
“Our hope,” said Dr. Crosson,” is that such standards will not only guide organizations wanting to provide the best service dogs to veterans, but also help veterans find the dogs that will be the most help in coping with their PTSD.”