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Service Dogs, Behavioral Activation, and PTSD treatment

This article is dedicated to the memory and legacy of Atlantic Beach Fire Department Chief Adam Snyder. Chief Snyder was an incredible husband, father, friend, mentor, leader, and advocate for mental health. Prior to his death, he led the Eastern Division of the North Carolina Peer Support Team. He never hesitated to be there for a fellow first responder in need, and on the second Tuesday of every month, he led first responder support group meetings open to anybody in need. He was the only person I ever knew who was able to support others who were suffering, while simultaneously fighting for his own mental health. The article closes with an email Chief Snyder sent me explaining the difference between therapy, service, and emotional support dogs. He also explains how the service dog helps people who are suffering from PTSD.

Last week, on the Carolina Brotherhood ride, founding member Pete Biviano brought his service dog, Adam. Pete has been dealing with PTSD for the last four years, and has struggled with recovery because he has a difficult time expressing emotions. With Adam in tow, we were able to witness the beautiful bond between the two. Adam brought out a confidence in Pete that was expressed through Pete's love and care for the dog. Prior to being matched, Adam learned Pete's mannerisms so he could detect anxiety and behavioral changes triggered by Pete's PTSD.

Adam's job is to keep a watchful eye out on Pete, and step in whenever Pete needs support or a nudge to reach out rather than detach. With Adam by his side, Pete experienced his most engaged and social ride in the history of the Carolina Brotherhood.

It was absolutely beautiful to see Adam in action, and through his work, witness Pete push through his anxiety. As Pete said, "it's really hard to understand how a service dog works until you witness it in action." For those of us who have known Pete for the last decade, we were blown away by their interaction and Adam's ability to care for Pete.

PTSD has been termed a disorder of recovery because in order to recover from trauma, individuals must be able to open up and share their thoughts, feelings, and struggles. When they don't feel safe doing this, they are unable to process the trauma, and their limbic system (emotional brain) remains stuck in fight or flight. This leads to an array of symptoms that can include hyperarousal, avoidance, detachment, depression, and even suicidal behavior.
Of all the protective factors and treatments for PTSD, positive social support has been found to be the only one that works for all people. However, social support is a two way street that requires engagement, meaningful conversation, and trust.

For people like Pete, who bottle their emotions, service dogs work as social facilitators to help reduce the risk of social isolation. Another important feature is the dependence of the animal on a human for exercise, feeding, and grooming. This dependence requires an individual to express protective and caring behavior that promotes engagement with other people through behavioral activation. In fact, behavioral activation is a primary treatment for both PTSD and depression among veterans returning home from deployment. Behavioral activation is a critical skill that is used in treatment to help individuals understand how their behaviors influence emotions.

Of all the benefits provided by a service dog, the behavioral activation is the key to successful treatment. While a service dog alone does not treat PTSD, through it's ability to stimulate behavioral activation, it serves as a complementary therapy that facilitates treatment.

Just a couple of weeks before the skiing accident that took his life, Chief Snyder was matched with his service dog, Zoar. He was so excited and hopeful for his continued healing that he shared a picture of him and Zoar after a week-long training event with Canines for Service in Wilmington, NC. I immediately shared this picture on the North Carolina Peer Support page and mistakenly referred to Zoar as a “therapy” dog. Adam was quick to correct me, and in his desire to educate our team, he sent me the following email explaining the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog. I hope through sharing his email, I can help to not only keep his legacy alive, but also allow Adam to continue to educate other first responders.

“First here is some info on the differences between therapy, emotional support and service dogs. Unfortunately a lot of people get confused over this and abuse the term service dog. A service dog is the only one that has legal right by the ADA to accompany a person with a disability everywhere they go in public.

A service dog is trained to help people with disabilities such as visual impairments, mental illnesses, seizure disorders, diabetes, etc. A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospice, disaster areas, retirement homes, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and more. Emotional support dogs provide their owners therapeutic benefits through companionship.

My service dog is specifically trained for helping me manage my PTSD, Anxiety and Depression.
When it comes to my PTSD I am constantly hypervigilant to my surrounding and always looking over my back. The dog is trained when I am shopping or out in public to sit behind me and lean on my leg. When someone approaches from behind they will stand up letting me know someone is walking up. This prevents always having to look over my shoulders and causing anxiety.

The dog is also trained to keep a barrier between myself and someone else and prevent people from getting to close to me.

The dog will fetch my morning medications to ensure I take them everyday, which I have a constant problems with, and causes me to have negative side effects.

The dog will be able to sense when I’m on a verge of a night terror and wake me up before it gets too bad.

The dog will also sense an impending anxiety attack and interrupt my thoughts by nudging me.

The dog also is trained to sense a flashback and interrupt by nudging me.

Overall the service dog is trained in 90 tasks. The goal is to help with PTSD and Anxiety symptoms that medications and therapy are not accomplishing.”

I want to thank Chief Snyder's wife, Stacie, for allowing me to share this email publicly, and for her continued engagement and support for first responders. I am so grateful for having the opportunity to know both her and Chief Snyder. Chief Snyder taught me so much about friendship, leadership, and empathy; I hope to continue to grow through remembering him and his legacy


For more information on service dogs:


Picture 1:  Adam and Zoar, Picture by Colleen Vihlen, Canines for service

Picture 2:  Pete and his Service Dog Adam, Picture by Dena Ali

Picture 3:  Amy, Pete, and Adam, Picture by Cal Barnard

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