Treating PTSD with the right amount of fluff


I love dogs. I love big dogs. I love small dogs. I just love all dogs. However, I am allergic to dogs. And I didn’t know this until I was 17 years old. Growing up in Peru, I used to have several breathing problems. I remember always being sick. And guess what; we had a dog. So, when I moved to the Netherlands and later did an allergy test, everything came together. I was allergic to plants, cats, horses and sadly also dogs.

Recently, I found out that one of my favourite dog breeds has a hypoallergenic fur. I’m talking about the labradoodle. Not only do they have a hypoallergenic fur, but they have high levels of empathy and are really smart. Therefore, they are great dogs for people struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD). And not only do they help people dealing with trauma, but they also tend to be super adorable. 

Although they are super adorable, their level of cuteness does not have a relation with why they help in rehabilitation processes of people with PSTD. To understand how these dogs help people struggling with PTSD, we need to understand what PTSD is and why these dogs are suitable. 

Cognitive profile

Together with golden retrievers, labrador retrievers and poodles, labradoodles have high levels of empathy and are sensitive to external stressors. This means that during their selection for assistance dogs they demonstrate above average levels of sensitivity for their surroundings and try to anticipate on these situations. Giaquinto and Valentini (2009) argue that because of this sensitivity, these dogs are able to signalize stressful situations that could affect their owners.

Furthermore, Giaquinto and Valentini (2009) point out that because of their higher levels of empathy, the dogs are able to correctly anticipate the situations. They should be able to understand the feelings of their owners and notice if their owners also perceive a certain situation as stressful. This combination of traits makes labradoodles (but also retrievers and poodles) really suitable for helping people with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

Post-traumatic stress disease

People suffering from PSTD tend to have high levels of stress and anxiety due to a traumatic event. A traumatic event is defined in the DSM-V as an event in which an individual is exposed to actual or threatening dead, serious injury or sexual violence (APA, 2013). These events tend to have a long-term effect on an individual. Such so, that these individuals avoid certain situations, have nightmares and have re-experiences. Not only do they cause these experiences, but they can also lead to catatonic symptoms caused by fear. 

Assistance dogs

To go back to the dogs, after they finish the assistance dog program for PTSD, they are capable of helping their owners. Studies show that due to the companionship they have with their owners, they tend to comfort their owners in situations that would normally be avoided (Renck Jalongo & Petro, 2018). When having nightmares, they tend to signalize the beginning of the nightmares and wake up their owners to stop the nightmares. Also, studies of Zeblisky and Jennings (2016) show that having a dog has a relation with having fewer re-experiences. However, they do not explain why.

Furthermore, the dogs trained to help people suffering from PTSD tend to notice catatonic symptoms. Specially the symptoms that are caused by fear. This is due to the high levels of empathy that these dogs have. Therefore, they are able to sense how their owners are feeling and therefore help them to get out of a situation. When they signalize symptoms such as immobility of selective mutism caused by fear, they are able to anticipate on this by leading their owners out of the situation or getting the attention such so that their owners will notice. 

All in all, we see that the high levels of empathy of labradoodles (among others) might help people dealing with more serious mental issues such as PTSD. The sensitivity of these dogs helps signalizing stressful events and therefore will help avoid too much negative effect on their owners. Not only do they help in avoiding certain situations, but also help when the owners are not capable of reacting by themselves. 

Although several studies show that the gravity of PTSD symptoms decreases in combination with high empathy and high sensitivity dogs, such as the labradoodle, it is still unclear how this can be implemented in therapies that focus on full remission. However, we do know that these dogs are able to make many life-aspects easier for people suffering from PTSD and will bring a smile to their face.