Service Dogs Offer Hope for Veterans Coping With Depression

Rubbing the ears of an affectionate golden retriever may just be exactly what the doctor ordered for the many veterans returning home afflicted by chronic traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The despair of living with PTSD or traumatic brain injury is one of the saddest legacies of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it’s shockingly common; more than 200,000 U.S. service members have been diagnosed with a brain injury in the last 10 years, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (IAVA). Tens of thousands more suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder that’s considered chronic, meaning it may take years of therapy before they’re free of anxiety, depression, insomnia, flashbacks and nightmares.

The result: a suicide rate so high–and still rising–that it has the government and military scrambling for preventive measures. More than 6,500 veterans commit suicide every year—more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since the wars began. According to the Veterans Administration, 18 veterans commit suicide every day—or one every 80 minutes. Think of it this way: for every veteran killed by enemy combatants, 25 veterans take their own lives.

And the damage isn’t necessarily temporary, either. Recent research shows that even minor brain injuries– such as those caused by a blast–can lead to severe long-term brain damage that’s physical, not just psychological. In a study released in May 2012, researchers documented that these kinds of invisible brain injuries can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same type of degenerative brain disease that afflicts football players and other athletes.

To the rescue come: dogs. All across the country, organizations with names like Hero Dogs, VetDogs and Freedom Dogs are springing up to provide traumatized and disabled veterans with companion and service dogs. The dogs, usually trained by the same organizations that train guide dogs for the blind and disabled, can open doors, fetch and carry, and—most importantly—will stay close when a vet experiences a panic attack or flashback. Community organizations are springing up all over the country to raise money and provide the dogs free of charge to qualifying vets.

Hopefully, the word will begin to get out about these grassroots efforts. A group of filmmakers have begun to document the dogs-for-veterans movement, which they hope to publicize with a movie called Dogs of Honor. The goal is to raise awareness with a documentary film about the vets, their dogs, and the life-saving connections they establish.

What kind of comfort does your pet bring? Tell us in the comments below.

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Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken is an award-winning health writer and editor who has contributed to and enhanced the content of many national magazines and health websites. In addition to Sharecare, she's been part of the editorial team at, WebMD,, and other highly respected health websites. Her stories have appeared in Fitness, Health, More, Real Simple, Yoga Journal, Ladies Home Journal, Woman's Day, and other magazines. Prior posts include Senior Editor at Parenting magazine, Managing Editor at San Francisco magazine, and Executive Editor at In her spare time she raises two teenage daughters and tries to find time to hike and dance.

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