Therapy & Service Dogs For People With PTSD

Q: Dear Frank, Several of our members would like service dogs or therapy dogs to help them handle PTSD symptoms. Are you familiar with this? Have you helped patients overcome obstacles to owning such dogs?

A: Dear reader, There is ample evidence that friendly, loving, well-trained dogs are helpful in living with PTSD. Dogs are a source of protection, of companionship, of loyalty and of love. The term SERVICE DOG refers to an animal that has been bred and trained to provide medically necessary functions. There are those with extreme psychiatric conditions who need a dog to enter a room before they do, assuring that no strangers are present. There are dogs that help pre-senile patients remember medication and avoid becoming lost. These dogs are certified and are recognized by law, granting their owners rights to have the dog with them in public places (

But most people with PTSD who can benefit from a canine companion do not require a service dog – that is, a dog trained and certified to a high standard and to specific tasks, costing a considerable amount of money. They need a comfort dog or an emotional support dog. A Google search of comfort dog explains all this and introduces a person with PTSD to sources of information and advice. Some people distinguish between a COMFORT DOG and a THERAPY DOG. The important point is that neither is a SERVICE DOG. They are far less expensive, but they are not covered by the American’s with Disabilities Act.

Therapy dogs are trained by their owners to provide assistance to others. Therapy dogs are used with those who are involved in volunteer animal assisted activities. These activities include, but are not limited to, visits to hospitals, special needs centers, schools, and nursing homes.

An employer or a landlord may appreciate a note from a medical doctor or a licensed therapist explaining why a person with PTSD requires a dog. If a person meets the stringent requirements for a service dog, the landlord or employer may face legal sanctions if they refuse accommodations. That would be like refusing to let a blind person bring a seeing-eye dog on the premises.

But if you want a dog as a companion, not as a medical necessity, you can still get help from your doctor. I just wrote a note for my patient who wants and deserves a comfort dog, not a service dog.

Here, with some phrases blocked out to preserve privacy, is that letter:

Frank M Ochberg, MD
4211 Okemos Road #6
Okemos, MI 48864

February 5, 2014

To Whom it May Concern:

A—– B—— is my patient, recovering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) originating from combat-like conditions during his service as a member of the —————–. PTSD includes unwanted memories of near-lethal situations, sensitivity to “triggers” (situations that remind a person of terror), and hyper-vigilance (being constantly alert for danger, even in a safe environment).

I have prescribed that A.B. purchase and train a “comfort dog” or a “therapy dog.” This is a recognized and accepted medical intervention for persons with PTSD who will benefit from such an asset. This will be a gentle, friendly dog, safe to have in a home with an infant.

Thank you for accommodating this intervention.

I am a medical doctor, licensed in Michigan, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and the former Mental Health Director of the State of Michigan. I specialize in treating PTSD.


Frank M Ochberg, MD

This letter helped my patient persuade his landlord to let him have a dog in his apartment. If you need a letter from your doctor or therapist, you might want to show them this example. The first paragraph might read, “Jane Doe is my patient, recovering from PTSD originating from traumatic events suffered several years ago. PTSD includes unwanted memories of dangerous situations…..etc.” Some survivors and some doctors prefer to leave out details. I find that a few details help make the case. But I always show a draft to my patient and work with her or him to make sure that the final letter is accurate and acceptable.

If you have a choice of getting a letter from a physician or a non-MD therapist you might find that the MD has more clout. I’m not saying it should be this way, but that landlords and employers find it harder to object to a letter from a medical doctor. I believe that we physicians have an obligation to use this clout for our patients. Having a letter already formulated for your doctor to sign may save time. I hope this helps!


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