When you hear of service dogs for PTSD victims, most people generally think of military veterans.
But what about survivors of sexual assault?
According to a recent article in The Atlantic, service dogs for victims of rape and other sexual assault attacks is becoming a more viable practice. Considering the statistics, this makes sense: 30% of sexual assault survivors are likely to develop PTSD, compared to the 20% of veterans.
There have been no official studies regarding the benefits of service dogs to PTSD sufferers, especially those who survived sexual assault. The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently resuming their study of veterans and service dogs (the study was suspended twice, the last time in 2012 after allegations that a vendor involved endangered the service dogs). However, no such study is in the works for sexual assault victims.
Nonetheless, many mental health and social workers do attest to the benefits service dogs have for PTSD sufferers. Training the dogs may help to modulate stress levels, as well as provide emotional benefits. Those who survive sexual assault in particular often have difficulties in trusting others; dogs may help overcome that.
However, service dogs do not come cheap. Generally, they cost $20,000 (or more), which is a price well out of reach for everyday citizens. Additionally, some ways service dogs are trained for sexual assault survivors are questionable. Sometimes, they are trained to be protective, which walks the line between service dog and guard dog. According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners:
“Disabled Americans have been engaged in a civil rights struggle for the right to be accompanied by their guide, hearing and service dogs for more than 70 years. Generations of guide dog handlers committed themselves to winning the public’s trust and admiration for their canine assistants…IAADP recognizes public fear of dogs remains a significant obstacle to our goal of societal acceptance…[the IAADP] absolutely rejects the claim by this provider and any like-minded provider that dogs trained to display aggressive behavior in public can be labeled a service animal as defined by the regulations developed under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).”
Captain Robert Koffman, a Navy psychiatrist at the Department of Defense’s medical-research institution the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, also commented to The Atlantic on the potential psychiatric roadblocks training service dogs as “protectors” could be for patients with PTSD. He indicated more research is needed to define what is the best way to use service dogs with such patients, since “…training service dogs to perform assistive tasks could help people with PTSD avoid addressing their issues, inadvertently reinforcing distorted fears they may have about the world.”
Until then however, programs like Service Dogs for Victims of Assault work to place and train dogs with those traumatized from violent and/or sexual attacks. Additionally, institutions such as Wisconsin’s Violence Against Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women Project also strive to provide legal and training recommendations for programs and women who need service dogs to help them in their everyday lives.
Whether they’re service dogs or emotional therapy dogs, it is clear that a pup can make a vital difference when it comes to day-to-day living for sexual assault survivors. One such woman, Alicia, told The Atlantic that her service pup now enables her to leave her apartment, something she was rarely doing after she was sexually assaulted in college.
Amy Weigel, another survivor, had similar words for The San Diego Union-Tribune when they did a story akin to The Atlantic‘s in 2000:
“Life has changed all for the better. [Her service dog Fedor] gives me a sense of self-confidence that I thought was gone, and safety and peace of mind to just be in crowds of people and know that I’m going to be OK.”