Well-Being Mental Health

Meet the police dogs helping officers heal from PTSD

Police dogs have been around for more than a century, sniffing out criminals, detecting explosives, searching for victims and guarding officers and property. Today, K9s are deployed across the country and in most branches of law enforcement, including the TSA, the FBI and Customs and Border Protection. There are so many trained dogs in the field that there doesn’t seem to be an accurate count of how many are on active duty in the United States, let alone in police forces around the world.

But the five new recruits at the Fairfax County, Va., police department have a special mission — to help police officers suffering from psychological trauma and disabled officers with everyday tasks.

It’s part of a pilot program to create a new classification of K9 that will, it is hoped, be as effective and instrumental to police departments as their traditional colleagues, who are tasked with rescues, patrols and protection. Three of the Fairfax police dogs are being trained as service animals to help temporarily injured or full disabled officers with everyday tasks, such as picking up an object off the ground or navigating a flight of stairs. The other two dog recruits will be giving comfort and support to officers suffering from trauma or anxiety.

Designated Emotional Support Animals are becoming increasingly commonplace in America, but they have not been widely used in active police and fire departments, nor in the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs will compensate for Service Dogs that help disabled veterans with mobility and communication issues, but they do not support most Emotional Support Animals. (Although private organizations often bring dogs to visit wounded veterans at hospitals and make them available at other events.)

This new pilot program, which is placing 30 dogs in a half dozen police departments, may eventually lead to a change of heart, though. 

A decade-long study has shown that police officers are at greater risk for high blood pressure, insomnia and stress, along with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide. Proponents of the new program hope the therapeutic benefits of a K9 colleague at the police station will help at least some officers diffuse the stress, anger and frustrations that often come with their jobs.

During a recent day of training, officers at Fairfax County crowded around to pet and tussle with their newest office mates, even though the trainees are not yet on active duty. 

If the pilot is successful, the idea could spread to other first responders — firefighters or Emergency Medical Technicians, and perhaps even to the military. Dogs have likely been helping on the frontlines of conflict since they became domesticated. It’s no surprise they have talents that can be used after a battle as well.

If you know of a police or firefighting department, or any other agency, that might be interested in learning more about what trained dogs can do for those who are disabled or have PTSD, you can reach us at Contact@ChangingAmerica.com. We’ll put you in touch with program coordinators.