The Healing Power of Dogs and Horses for Veterans with PTSD

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June 27th is PTSD Awareness Day, which serves as a reminder to all that post-traumatic stress disorder is a complex condition that affects roughly 13 million people in a given year. On this day though, Charlie Mike wants to shed light on the Veteran community. Due to the nature of their military service and exposure to combat, Veterans are infamously tied to PTSD. Approximately 11-20% of Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan developed PTSD, making it a common mental health issue among service members.

While traditional therapies and medications are extremely helpful to those battling PTSD, they have their limitations. This has led to the exploration of alternative treatments. Equine therapy and companion dogs have emerged as powerful resources in aiding Veterans’ recovery from PTSD. These two treatments, which are both offered at Charlie Mike, positively impact Veterans’ mental well-being, emotional stability, and overall quality of life.

The Healing Power of Dogs

At Charlie Mike, we rescue dogs from shelters, train them, and place them with Veterans in need of companionship. These Canine Battle Buddies are disciplined, loyal, and supportive. Not only do they provide practical assistance, they offer profound emotional healing to Veterans with PTSD. The presence of the dog alone can offer comfort and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression for these Veteran owners.

Here are the ways dogs help Veterans with PTSD:

  1. Improved Well-Being and Stress Reduction: Dogs provide comfort and a grounding presence during times of distress. Their companionship can reduce the severity of PTSD symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation. A 2018 study from Syracuse University found that Veterans who participated in their dog adoption and training program experienced decreases in anxiety levels and PTSD symptoms, while also experiencing improvements in self-compassion. This study and its program, which shares many similarities with Charlie Mike’s Battle Buddies Program, found that Veterans also experienced a renewed sense of purpose during this process. 
  2. Increased Feelings of Safety: A review from 2018 also found that owning a dog can increase Veterans’ feelings of safety and security. Significant benefits of canine companionship included reductions in worry and increased feelings of calmness.
  3. Social Reintegration and Exercise: Veterans with PTSD often face social withdrawal and isolation. Companion dogs serve as social facilitators, breaking down barriers and increasing social interactions. These furry companions encourage Veterans to engage in daily activities and connect with others. Dog ownership encourages physical exercise and social interaction through activities like dog walking, for example.

The Healing Power of Horses

Equine therapy, another form of animal-assisted therapy, involves interactions between individuals and horses in a controlled environment. Horses possess a remarkable ability to sense emotions and mirror human behavior, making them intuitive and perceptive partners in therapy. Veterans are encouraged to engage in various activities such as grooming, leading, and riding horses. In turn, Veterans find new ways to trust and communicate with these majestic creatures. These interactions provide a safe space for Veterans to express and process their emotions. Overall, the bond formed between Veterans and horses can bring about significant positive changes in their lives.

Here are the ways horses help Veterans with PTSD:

  1. Increased Mindfulness: The rhythmic movements of a horse, the peaceful surroundings, and the focused engagement required during equine therapy sessions encourage Veterans to be present in the moment. This practice of mindfulness and grounding helps alleviate symptoms of hyper-vigilance commonly experienced in PTSD. It provides a sanctuary where Veterans can temporarily set aside their worries and immerse themselves in the present.
  2. Stress Reduction: A 2018 study from the University of Missouri found a marked decrease in PTSD symptoms in Veterans after just 6 weeks of therapeutic horse riding treatments. Preliminary evidence suggested that PTSD and anxiety may decrease with physical activity. Therapeutic horse riding requires the rider to use core strength, and activities prior to the ride call for physical activity. These factors all help to reduce stress levels and anxiety levels in Veterans.
  3. Enhancing Self-Efficacy: Equine therapy empowers Veterans by giving them responsibilities and teaching them horsemanship skills. As they master these skills, Veterans experience a renewed sense of confidence in their abilities. Many Veterans with PTSD struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-worth. The responsibility of caring for a horse and the accomplishments achieved during therapy sessions can help rebuild self-esteem and a sense of purpose.

PTSD Awareness Day

PTSD Awareness Day reminds us that the invisible wounds of trauma deserve just as much attention as physical injuries. Let’s spread awareness, share resources, and foster a supportive environment for those battling PTSD today. And if you’re a Veteran suffering in silence, know that there is hope and that Charlie Mike is here to help. Our equine therapy and Canine Battle Buddies programs can be powerful allies in your journey to healing. Please reach out if you’re interested in any of our services.

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