PTSD assistance dogs provide security and increase rehabilitation successes
PTSD assistance dogs provide security and increase rehabilitation successes
We asked Astrid Ledwina, first chairperson, Rehahunde Deutschland e.V.
Dogs are not only popular pets, but in some cases they also do important work: Assistance dogs trained for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not only a physical companion in everyday life, but above all must also be a psychological support. The association Rehahunde Deutschland e.V. trains such dogs. This year it celebrated its 15th anniversary.
Astrid Ledwina with Hubertus Heil, german Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs
What changes have taken place in the association and its work in the last 15 years?
Astrid Ledwina: We now have permanent trainers and a permanent office worker and are an association that stands on solid pillars. In addition, we have learned over the years to be more critical in the selection of our clients and their illnesses. In case of doubt, our trainers always have to decide in the interest of the dogs: Only if a family presents a coherent picture even without a dog, we do add a dog. We therefore explicitly point out that an assistance dog is not a family dog, but a dog that is specially trained for a person with a disability. Of course, the dog has to fit into the whole family, but that also means that the siblings have to keep a low profile when dealing with the dog.
I am particularly pleased that I was awarded the Cross of Merit on Ribbon of the Federal Republic of Germany for my services in supporting people with disabilities and chronic illnesses as well as traumatised soldiers.
To what extent does the new (German) Assistance Dog Act affect you?
Ledwina: In April, the Parliament had already passed this new regulation. The law stipulates that assistance dogs – like guide dogs for blind people – may be taken into public and private institutions, including doctors' surgeries, shopping centres, restaurants and so on. This applies even if dogs are actually prohibited there.
Dogs and children must fit together well – but above all, the assistance dog must be able to do its work undisturbed later on.
In the future, it will also be defined more precisely which dogs are really assistance dogs: Up to now, every person with a disability could acquire a dog and train it themselves – sometimes, unfortunately, rather poorly than properly.
In the near future, there will be an examination commission that will only certify dogs as assistance dogs if they can prove at least three assistance dog services. The dogs must be trained by or with a "certified and tested training agency". Self-training of one's own dog is thus made impossible, which I personally think is very good. Officially, the law came into force on 1 July 2021, but it will be defined in more detail in the coming months.
Among other things, you are specialised in training assistance dogs for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): How does this training differ from the others?
Ledwina: This group, which includes soldiers or police officers, for example, who have been traumatised several times in the course of their work, finds it particularly difficult to find adequate care. We want to find new ways to support them and give them a place in society where they are not only heard, but also seen, recognised and respected. The tasks of a PTSD assistance dog for military personnel include general and specific requirements.
The general requirements include, for example, walking on a leash: The dog does not walk loosely on the leash, but leads by walking ahead with a light pull. On the one hand, this means that the dog handlers are always aware that the dog is with them and, on the other hand, that the dog handlers follow the dog, which means they start moving and running. This is important because in many cases the people are in an isolated environment that they do not want to leave or enter unknown terrain.
PTSD assistance dogs learn in their training how to support or distract their owners in certain situations.
This leading on the leash by the dog also plays an important role when the dog is to lead out of threatening, tense or unsafe situations, such as crowds, darkness or severe weather. The dogs learn in the general requirements – according to their nature – to react to changes in behaviour or mood. In such a case, they can draw their human's consciousness to them by nudging, jostling or laying a paw on them and thus, for example, interrupt dissociations, flashbacks, intrusions or nightmares, convey security and, if necessary, implement follow-up actions, such as switching on the light, bringing medication, leading out of situations or getting help.
The handling of different characteristics and traits as well as illness-related peculiarities of the future owner is trained at a very early stage so that it can be built upon in the general requirements. For example, the dog learns to accompany and support treatment and therapy. In quite a few cases, the affected persons are stigmatised and this jeopardises the success of treatment, therapy and rehabilitation. Our experiences have shown that through animal assistance, affected persons have succeeded in gaining a new awareness of themselves and the disease, in getting involved in necessary treatment, therapy and rehabilitation measures, in finding new ways of living and working and in participating in life again.
The PTSD assistance dogs are an important emotionla support for their owners in everyday life.
The specific requirements include assistance tasks, which are determined and trained individually based on the illness and the need for help. This includes, for example, the special feature of interrupting nightmares, for example by putting on a paw, nudging or conveying security by lying down. Other ill persons forget to eat and drink or to take regular breaks – in other words, to take care of themselves. Here, too, animal assistance can help by offering drinks, bringing lunch boxes or asking to move around.
Mood swings are also a common symptom of the disease. The dog learns to recognise, endure and redirect these. This happens, for example, by noticing changes in behaviour, gestures, facial expressions or smell. When these mood swings occur, the dog will react according to the training, for example by asking to move or bringing the diary.
The increased need for control and safety of those affected must also not be neglected: If necessary, the dogs are trained with the support of customs or police to recognise and indicate weapons or threats from hidden objects. This is also where the increased need for distance of the ill persons comes into play: The dogs learn to split by sitting behind the owners or to block by sitting next to or in front of the owners. This plays an important role, for example, when accompanying a person to the shops, but the dog can also provide the necessary space for the caregiver in crowds. These assistance services increase the feeling of safety to a considerable extent.
Last but not least, the dogs are trained specifically for their area of deployment in the various branches of the armed forces and services. This is done, on the one hand, to ensure and support reintegration or occupational rehabilitation and, on the other hand, to strengthen the awareness for achieving the personal and therapeutically set goals.
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