New Law Would Require VA to Provide Service Dogs to Veterans with PTSD or Mental Health Disorders

va provide dogs veterans ptsd

Push for VA to Provide Service Dogs to Veterans with Mental Health Issues, PTSD

In February of this year, the House unanimously passed the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) for Veterans Therapy Act, which would require the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to begin funding a pilot program where service dogs would be trained for veterans with mental health issues and PTSD.

The VA currently only covers service dog costs for veterans with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments. The bill will now proceed to the Senate, but legislators have had a difficult time trying to pass the bill since 2009.

In January 2009, Senator Al Franken introduced a bill requiring the VA to do a three-year pilot study on the benefits and feasibility of service dogs for PTSD and other disabilities. In 2010 the bill was passed and incorporated into the defense budget.

Study Off to Rocky Start

The VA began the study, but had partnered with contractors who did not perform proper screening of their dogs. About 25% of the dogs were found to have hip dysplasia, two dogs bit children, and two others had medical problems (health problems and aggressiveness are two major problems that cannot be present in a service dog).  Contractors also discouraged those participating in the program from reporting problems with their dogs, causing the study to be even more inaccurate.

In 2012, the VA suspended the study while they restructured and hired new contractors and trainers. As of 2019, the VA had planned to release their findings mid- to late 2020. The findings will look at the impact service dogs had on PTSD symptoms and quality of life, as well as if there were any reduced health care costs for participants.

Over 10 Years of Frustration with Study

Some legislators have expressed frustration at the length of time it has taken the VA to incorporate service dogs as a part of mental health treatment for veterans. Representative Jim McGovern, D-MA., reported that he has been trying to work with the VA on this for years, but has been repeatedly told that they are “looking into it.” McGovern even admitted, “I haven’t checked in this year (2019) with VA folks, because I’ve just kind of given up on them.”

VA Expresses Science Lacking to Support that Service Dogs Help

The VA has expressed resistance to providing service dogs for veterans with mental health issues. Dr. Michael Fallon, the VA’s chief veterinarian, gave an interview with National Public Radio in 2017 where he stated, “I would say there are a lot of heartwarming stories that service dogs help, but scientific basis for that claim is lacking.” Per the New York Times, other VA officials have said that “the bill could ‘result in unintended and negative consequences’ for veterans entrusting their well-being to ‘this unsubstantiated treatment regime’.”

Other Studies Show Otherwise

While the VA has attempted to complete their study that began in 2012, other studies have since shown that veterans do benefit from service dogs. In 2014, Kaiser Permanente conducted a study with 75 veterans, with results showing a reduction in PTSD/depression symptoms and in substance abuse, and an improvement in interpersonal relationships.

In 2018, Purdue University conducted their own study with 73 veterans, and found that those using service dogs produced a higher level of cortisol production, a hormone involved in processing stress. Participants also had an average of a 12-point reduction on the VA’s PTSD symptom checklist. Purdue is now conducting a three-year study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to further evaluate the long-term effects service dogs may have on veterans.

Service Dogs From Non-Profits Can Be Costly

While veterans can obtain a service dog from non-profit organizations, the cost could range from $15,000-$30,000, and waiting lists could be a year or longer. There are also costs associated with owning a service dog, such as veterinary fees and food. These costs make it difficult or deter many veterans from getting a service dog. With almost 20% of post-9/11 veterans suffering from PTSD and about 20 veterans a day committing suicide, legislators and other supporters of the PAWS Act, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, continue to push for the passage of the bill.

Demand Higher During Stay-at-Home Orders

During stay-at-home orders and the coronavirus pandemic, many veterans, and others with mental and physical disabilities, find themselves struggling more than before, and the demand for service dogs has gone up in some areas. With higher demand comes longer waitlists, and although progress is being made on the PAWS Act, it could be some time before the VA readily provides service dogs for mental health related issues.

Although time and labor intensive, anyone with a disability according to the ADA, physical or mental, can train their own service dog. A good overview and guide for owner-training a service dog can be found here.

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About the author

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Diandra is a military spouse affiliated with the North Carolina National Guard. She has focused her writing on science and medicine in the past, but recently has taken a deeper interest in military-focused topics. Her and her husband Nick currently reside outside of the Washington D.C. area.