Service members with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions may eventually have expanded access to service dogs through legislation recently signed into law by President Joseph R. Biden.
The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act (HR 1448) orders the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to begin a pilot program that over the course of 5 years will examine the utility and effectiveness of service dogs for improving the mental health of military veterans.
The legislation does not set a specific start date for the pilot program, but Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit organization based in Ponte Vedra, Florida, noted that K9s for Warriors and other organizations will be pushing the VA to start in 2022.
“We commend the White House for supporting this bill as a critical step in combating veteran suicide, and we’re confident in the path ahead for Service Dogs ultimately becoming a covered VA benefit to veterans with PTSD,” Diamond said in a statement provided to Medscape Medical News.
“For servicemembers relying on task-trained service dogs for PTSD, the HR 1448 is a giant leap towards supporting veterans and their service dogs in an equitable way,” Canine Companions, a national nonprofit organization that trains and provides service dogs, said in its own statement.
“It might mean the difference between having a veteran who won’t be here tomorrow and having one that will,” the group added.
Invisible Wounds of War
In another statement provided to Medscape Medical News, Bill McCabe, legislative affairs director at The Enlisted Association, said that “now more than ever, veterans suffering from invisible wounds of war need access to trained service dogs, which have been scientifically proven to help alleviate symptoms of posttraumatic stress,” as well as traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and military sexual trauma.
“We thank President Biden for recognizing veterans need every possible option when seeking mental health treatments, and look forward to working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement this important program,” McCabe said.
A recent VA report showed that in 2014, 40% of veterans had mental health conditions such as PTSD and substance use. An average of 20 veterans per day died by suicide that year.
Veterans with problems regarding mobility, hearing, and sight, as well as some mental health problems, have been eligible to have costs of veterinary care for service dogs paid by the VA, although the VA has not paid for the training of the animals.
The PAWS Act, which was bipartisan legislation introduced by US Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), aims to expand eligibility to those with any mental health problems.
For at least a decade, various service dog and veterans’ organizations have pushed to have the VA expand the service dog benefit. This new law is a “first step,” said Diamond. “We had to kick open the door,” he said, adding that “the VA has essentially said no for almost 15 years.”
Diamond noted that there is “overwhelming” evidence showing that service dogs improve quality of life and reduce distress for veterans with PTSD and other diagnoses.
Results from a VA study showed that suicidal ideation was reduced in veterans who were paired with service dogs compared with veterans paired with emotional support dogs. The study, which was made public in March, found no reduction in overall disability, according to a report by Military.com.
K9s for Warriors cites numerous other studies, published in peer-reviewed journals, that have shown that service dogs reduce PTSD symptoms, especially hypervigilance.
“There really is no excuse not to have the VA engaged in helping veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress who are extremely high risk of suicide to get a lifesaving service dog,” Diamond said.
His organization has paired 700 veterans suffering from TBI, PTSD, or military sexual trauma with a service dog. The organization provides a 3-week training program for the veteran and his or her dog.
Although about 200 of the graduates have been eligible to receive coverage from the VA for veterinary care for the dogs, it requires a lot of paperwork, and the criteria for who can be certified to receive that benefit are somewhat vague, Diamond noted.
Under current policy, the dog and veteran must have successfully completed a training program offered by an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation. The VA does not pay for the training or the dog – which at K9s for Warriors costs about $25,000.
The new pilot program will enable eligible veterans to receive dog training instruction from accredited nonprofit service dog training organizations, and it will give them the opportunity to adopt a dog that they actively assisted in training.
Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA, Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.
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