Service Dogs and PTSD

PTSD service dog Gus

Service Dogs and PTSD

 “Gus has completely transformed my life and opened up so many avenues of conversation between myself and people who have similar stories.  I’m beyond blessed to have found Retrieving Independence and to have Gus pick me.” – Joel, Nashville, TN

Gus weighs 85 lbs., has curly blonde hair, and is laser focused on Joel. Gus is a service dog. Joel is his best friend. Like so many Americans, Joel is facing a struggle that is not visible to the outside world.

Joel is one of the estimated 8% of Americans − 24.4 million people – living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at any given time. That is equal to the total population of Texas[i]. Dr. Brenda Dew, Counseling Director at Retrieving Independence, a Nashville based nonprofit that breeds, trains, and places service dogs, knows how important the proper diagnosis can be in these cases.

“Because symptoms can appear many years after a traumatic event, the PTSD diagnosis can be difficult. With symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and flashbacks, PTSD is not something that patients can tackle alone and a therapist that specializes in PTSD is a critical step in managing the disorder.”

Through her work at Retrieving Independence, Dr. Dew has seen the impact of adding a PTSD trained service dog into the treatment approach.

“While we know through past studies that 92 percent of participants reduce their medications or stop taking them altogether within six months of being paired with a PSTD trained service dog[ii], it is important to assess each case individually. Having a service dog has great rewards but it is also a significant commitment and a mental health professional should be involved every step of the way.”

While PTSD is often associated with the veteran population, many people are surprised to learn that 1 in 9 women also live with PTSD, making them twice as likely as men to be impacted[iii]. After six years serving as the Program and Training Director at Retrieving Independence, Lesley Adams has worked with both men and women living with PTSD.

“It is important to partner with Dr. Dew and the recipient to understand the exact skills needed as we are training the dogs. There are unique reasons people come to us for a service dog and our goal is to understand each person and treat them with care and respect as we find their best match. While the dogs can do many things, there are core skills we focus on specifically for PTSD and there are also a few cues that are unique”.

  • “Lay on me” – This cue teaches the dog to apply deep pressure – either while sitting or lying down – to alleviate anxiety.
  • “Oohbah, heel, side, behind” – These are all cues for putting distance between the PTSD individual and someone approaching or talking to them, especially in stressful or unfamiliar situations. ‘Oohbah’ is a specific cue that positions the dog in front of the recipient, creating space from others.
  • “Look behind” – The PTSD trained service dog (in heel or side position) turns and faces backwards, but still in position close to the recipient. This lessens concerns about blind spots or unseen activity.

Lesley Adams and her team of trainers work not only to teach the PTSD service dogs cues, they also teach them observation skills.

“We can add some physical cues if the recipient has particular physical signs that occur when having a panic attack or flashback, such as sitting and covering the face, rapidly tapping their foot, etc. This allows the dog to respond in a customized manner that we have worked on with Dr. Dew and the recipient to manage these events”.

The benefits of a PTSD trained service dog extend beyond tasks and cues. When a person is living with anxiety and depression, they feel it intensely. These specially trained service dogs sense those emotions and are taught to intervene by helping the person breath deeply, relax and realize they are not alone. Beyond the expected benefit of service, these dogs offer comfort, companionship and unconditional love.

These are no ordinary dogs; they’re partner, friend, confidant, and a true member of the family.

June is PTSD awareness month. To learn more, visit

To learn more about the work happening at Retrieving Independence, visit

About Retrieving Independence:

Retrieving Independence is a Nashville-based 501(C)3 nonprofit that breeds, trains and places service dogs with people who are living with physical, mental or emotional disability.

This is all accomplished with the help of volunteer breeders, puppy raisers, and weekend furlough volunteers. Through our partnership with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, RI works with inmates to provide a significant portion of the training throughout the almost two-year program.

That’s what we do. But WHY do we do it?

We do it for the love poured into the dogs by the volunteers. We do it for the purpose and dignity it gives the inmate trainers. We do it for the life-rocking change it gives to our incredible recipients.

Love. Dignity. Change.

Contact us at to learn more or make a donation and change a life.