Families come in many different forms and often include our furry, four-legged family members. Having a pet is a common experience in the United States; roughly 90 million homes own a pet and over 69 million of those households own a dog (APPA National Pet Owner Survey, 2021-2022). As the saying goes “a dog is a man’s (and woman’s) best friend”. Dogs give people a sense of friendship and joy every day and can improve people’s lives in much more practical ways. Roughly 500,000 service animals assist those who rely on them.
Service animals are trained to work with and support individuals with disabilities. Some examples of the service these animals provide include:
- Assisting those who are hearing impaired,
- Assisting those with physical disabilities to balance and retrieve objects,
- Assisting individuals with mental health concerns such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and
- Calming down their owners during an anxiety attack.
Service animals have been shown to support their owners’ overall psychosocial health, including higher emotional and social functioning (Rodriguez, Bibbo, & O’Hair, 2020). Service animals are also distinctly different from emotional support animals. Emotional support animals also comfort and support people experiencing a variety of mental health concerns (e.g., social anxiety, depression), but do not undergo the rigorous training required for service animals.
Support from a service animal can be important for Veterans dealing with post-deployment, mental health concerns, and overall functioning. Veterans can turn to the VA for help contacting accredited agencies in order to find a service animal of their own. However, I’ll also highlight some of the benefits of having a service dog, as well as some things to consider before welcoming one into your family.
Benefits of having a Service Dog:
Research shows that service dogs can help Veterans manage PTSD, offer overall support for wellbeing, provide a sense of purpose, and instill feelings of safety. Further, service dogs can help to manage stress, which is often a concern for Veterans, and they can give Veterans a sense of confidence in social settings. Having a service dog in the home might also help families communicate more effectively, have more family time, and regulate stress together. And service dogs can serve as companions for the entire family – including children, which can in turn support childhood development. A service dog can create a feeling of all-around familial connectedness, influencing far more than the Service member alone.
Considerations before owning a Service Dog:
Owning a service dog sounds like it’s all fun, right? And most of it probably is. However, there are many things to consider before bringing one home, such as the time, energy, and financial burdens of ownership. Service dogs require time and energy in a variety of ways, including continued training, exercise, and overall health maintenance. Training for service dogs is extensive and can take between 8 – 18 months depending on the needs of the Service member. Dogs trained to assist Service members with PTSD learn how to interrupt PTSD symptoms (e.g., anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares), allowing the veterans to regain their emotional control and their safety in challenging environments and situations.
There are also financial considerations when it comes to owning a pet or a service dog, chief among them the cost of food and veterinary bills. Bringing a service dog into your family also comes with unique responsibilities, which, in some cases, can disrupt family relationships. The service dog is trained to have a relationship with its Service member, something that may make other family members jealous. At the same time, the family is responsible for integrating the service dog into its routine. A lack of clarity between the Service member and spouse regarding training commands or relationship rules can result in uncertainty for the family system. Service dogs may also increase the spouse’s caregiver burden: service dogs may still misbehave; you might lose a sock or two; and other family members could be left with animal maintenance the Service member can’t maintain alone.
If owning a service dog seems like a good option for you and your family, review the resources you get from the VA, which may be able to defray costs associated with your service companion. And make sure you weigh all of the options before deciding. When considering whether a service dog is right for your family, be mindful of both the positive and more take note of the effect it can have on your Service member’s well-being and the ways a service dog might bring joy into your home.