Dogs and Vets: Helping Veterans with PTSD

va provide dogs veterans ptsd

The PAWS Veterans Therapy Act Would Provide Dogs to Veterans with PTSD

Many service members have been diagnosed with PTSD during their time in service. These veterans are able to get treatment, but what about using a service dog? Can these animals really help veterans get better? The answer is yes, and because of this, the PAWS Veterans Therapy Act has been passed by Congress, awaiting signature by President Biden.

The bill was introduced to the House in March of 2021.  It passed the House in May. On August 6, 2021, the bill was passed by the Senate.

What is the PAWS Veterans Therapy Act?

PAWS (the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) for Veterans Therapy Act, implements a new program to provide service dogs to eligible veterans diagnosed with PTSD.  The bill will require the Department of Veteran Affairs to implement a 5-year pilot program to provide canine training to eligible veterans.

Veterans will need to be enrolled in the VA health care system and be recommended for participation by a qualified medical health provider or clinical team. 

In addition, this bill also authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide service dogs to veterans with mental illness who do not have mobility impairments. 

History of the PAWS Act

Previously the VA only covered service dog costs for veterans with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments.  Legislators had been trying to change this by passing this bill since 2009

In January 2009, Senator Al Franken introduced a bill requiring the VA to do a 3-year pilot study on the benefits and feasibility of service dogs for PTSD and other disabilities. In 2010 the bill funding the study was passed and incorporated into the defense budget.  At this time, Congress ordered the VA to study what impact service dogs have on veterans who have PTSD.

The PAWS Study

Study Got Off to a 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.

Over 10 Years of Frustration with Study

Some legislators had expressed frustration at the length of time it took for 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 (this was in 2019) with VA folks, because I’ve just kind of given up on them.”

VA Previously Expressed Science Lacking to Support that Service Dogs Help

The VA had 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 Showed Otherwise

While the VA attempted to complete their study that began in 2012, other studies since had 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 currently 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.

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.

Results of the Study

According to Military.com, veterans were paired with both service dogs and emotional support dogs for an 18-month period. The results found that there was a 3.7 point drop in the PTSD symptoms score with those who had a service dog. They also found that there were declines in suicidality and anger with the service dogs. 

This study shows that there are some big benefits to pairing veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD with service dogs. 

According to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the average number of veteran suicides per day was 17.6 in 2018. The PAWS Act could help with the rate of veteran suicides, as well as other symptoms of PTSD.

Representative Sherrill Praises Passage

Representative Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) released this statement on the passage of the bipartisan PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act in the Senate:

“I am thrilled to see the Senate pass the bipartisan PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act. I’ve championed this legislation since my first term, because of the incredible impact it will have on veterans’ mental health. Experts agree that service dogs are one of the best mental health treatments to help bring relief, solace, and recovery for our veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress.

“I first became an advocate for this legislation after a number of conversations about the cost barriers many veterans face in trying to obtain a service dog. This treatment has proven results and when President Biden signs this bill into law, more of our veterans will gain access to this life-saving form of therapy. After dedicating so much to the nation, our veterans deserve the best care available and this program will help deliver it. It’s my hope the President signs it as soon as possible.”

The VA will be working with accredited service dog training organizations that provide service dogs to veterans with PTSD, and who are accredited by an accrediting organization with demonstrated experience, national scope, and recognized leadership and expertise in the training of service dogs and education in the use of service dogs.

What is the timing of the PAWS program?

The timing of when this pilot program will go into effect has yet to be determined but once the program gets started, the service it will provide will be a good addition for veterans diagnosed with PTSD as well as their families. 

 

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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.

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Julie Provost is a freelance writer, blogger, and owner of Soldier's Wife, Crazy Life, a support blog for military spouses. She lives in Tennessee with her National Guard husband and three boys.