Guides to Healing: Psychiatric Service Dogs for Sexual Assault-Related PTSD

After Anna was raped at the age of 23, her world changed. A life that had been full of promise became stark and isolated, fearful and small. Her depression was crushing, her anxiety choked her, and her constant fear left her hypervigilant, jumping out of her own skin at the slightest provocation. She stopped going out, not knowing when a sight, a sound, a smell might trigger her, seeking safety in the world of her one-bedroom apartment where she did not have to run the risk of public panic. Still, she could not remember the last time she slept through the night. Like 31% of rape victims, she was left to struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that consumed her and fractured her ability to function.

And then she met Max.

Max accompanies her to therapy. He keeps her feeling safe in crowds, creating a barrier between her and the bodies of strangers. He reminds her to take the medication that relieves her depression and anxiety and when he senses that she is starting to panic, he puts his head on her lap to ground her and encourage her to breathe. For the first time in years, she can sleep, knowing he is beside her. Max is a psychiatric service dog, and he has been not only a faithful companion, but an integral part of Anna’s recovery process as she heals from her assault and her PTSD.

As veterans began returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, awareness rose about the benefits of psychiatric service dogs and a heightened interest in the topic produced numerous studies supporting their therapeutic efficacy. The ways dogs naturally reduce social isolation and invite emotional engagement were found to be vital components of combating PTSD symptoms. Veterans found that the skills required to handle the dogs, such as asserting authority without aggression and using clear communication, taught them useful coping mechanisms that help them regulate their responses to stressors in the rest of their lives. People suffering from combat-related PTSD also reported increased quality of sleep, as they knew a “naturally alert soul was standing watch.”

Begin Your Recovery Journey.


Special Training, Special Access

The benefits of psychiatric service dogs for PTSD in sexual assault survivors have been less studied and publicly acknowledged, but are no less significant. The positive effects of dog ownership for mental health disorders are well-established, from the bonding and stress-reducing powers of oxytocin release to the healing potential of physical exercise and social integration. However, the specific training psychiatric service dogs undergo and the access they enjoy add another level of therapeutic intervention that is uniquely suited for sexual assault survivors. For example, the ability to identify triggers and intervene prior to the development of a panic attack or flashback can be vital to disrupting PTSD symptoms, allowing you the chance to use healthy coping skills to work through distress before the situation becomes overwhelming. As a service animal, the dog can accompany you anywhere you go, which means they are your constant companion and can provide emotional and practical support in situations pets are not always able to, including work, airplanes, restaurants, and shops. This can allow you to return to a normal routine faster, as you will never have to be without your service dog.

A Partner in Therapy

Psychotherapy can often be a particularly difficult process for sexual assault survivors with PTSD, as feelings of shame, distrust, and fear of being triggered can act as barriers to treatment. Taking your psychiatric service dog to therapy can help you feel at ease, knowing you have a trusted ally as you do the vital work of exploring your trauma and gaining the insight and skills you need to rebuild a healthy life. Your dog can provide comfort as you confront your emotional distress and the oxytocin that is released when you look into your dog’s eyes or pet them can increase your responsiveness to psychotherapy. When used as part of a comprehensive treatment program, your dog can not only help you with day-to-day living, but can play a crucial role in you healing from the pain of PTSD and reclaiming your life.

Psychiatric Service Dogs At Bridges

At Bridges to Recovery, we honor the special bonds between our clients and their pets and recognize the tremendous therapeutic work of psychiatric service dogs. We invite you to bring your dog to stay with you throughout treatment to ensure that you have every support you need to recover. We offer compassionate, innovative trauma treatment plans designed around your personal needs and will work with you to regain stability, confidence, trust, and a sense of peace.

Contact us to learn more about PTSD treatment at Bridges to Recovery and how we can accommodate your psychiatric service dog at our facilities.