Why Doesn’t the VA Think Service Dogs Can Help Veterans With PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can result from a life-threatening event. By: skeeze

Americans are fortunate in that we have never experienced what it is like to deal with an active combat situation in our own backyards. Combat has historically taken place overseas, which means many Americans have no idea what it’s like to be in an active war zone. Save 1 group of Americans, that is — our veterans.

Veterans have gone to these active war zones to defend our country. These men and women have been exposed to the very worst that humanity has to offer: death, disfigurement and gore. Living in that shadow can have long-lasting, traumatic effects.

One common disorder that veterans suffer from is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Is PTSD?

As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health: “PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” With PTSD, veterans often have flashbacks to horrifying situations they experienced during their deployments. Sometimes there are triggers that precede these flashbacks, like fireworks. Other times, flashbacks happen with no warning.

During these episodes, a veteran will sometimes completely relive the terrible experience that caused the PTSD. In addition to paralysis and violent reactions, anxiety, depression and other mental issues can also accompany PTSD.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are trained to perform a wide variety of tasks depending upon what their eventual handler will need.

Some help with tasks designed to assist those who are physically disabled. Other dogs are trained to respond to upcoming seizures and other mental and/or “invisible” disorders.

Veterans Affairs Involvement

Veterans returning from duty who have some sort of physical impairment may be eligible to receive a service dog from the Veterans Affairs (VA) agency. However, according to its website: “Protecting someone, giving emotional support or being a companion do not qualify a dog to be a service animal.” Because many PTSD sufferers don’t have physical injuries or disabilities, they may currently be ineligible for a service dog.

That is, of course, unless the veteran can pay for the dog, his or her training and all accompanying lifetime medical and care bills. Cost is extremely prohibitive. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the cost of a fully trained service dog can reach as high as $25,000, although this figure will vary depending on the tasks the dog is trained to perform.

The VA isn’t entirely convinced that service dogs help PTSD sufferers in a way that makes sense. “The VA is based on evidence-based medicine. We want people to use therapy that has proven value,” says Michael Fallon, chief veterinary medical officer for VA.

In this case, there are no scientific studies that show definitively whether or not a PTSD sufferer benefits from a service dog.

The VA is currently studying the effects service dogs may have on the well-being of veterans returning from combat situations with PTSD. By: Presidio of Monterey

The Studies

The VA has attempted to study the effectiveness of service dogs for those with PTSD in 2011. The study was suspended after only 6 months due to 2 of the issued service dogs biting children.

The VA restarted the study in 2012 — without 2 of the 3 organizations it had contracted to provide service dogs to the enrolled veterans. This study was even shorter: It was conducted in under a month. In this case, the study was suspended “due to the discovery of serious problems with the health and training of dogs provided by the remaining dog organization under contract.”

After these 2 serious blunders, the VA intensively examined the study protocols and made significant changes, some of which included:

  • Seeking advice and suggestions from accredited dog training organizations
  • Offering that the study design be reviewed by academic professionals with interest and experience in treating PTSD in veterans
  • Hiring dog trainers specifically designed to assist veterans with training their service dogs
  • Increasing the sites of the study to enroll more veterans

It’s important to remember that this is just a study, and at the end, the VA may conclude that there is no definitive benefit for PTSD sufferers in keeping a service dog and continue to deny PTSD sufferers a dog. But the fact that the study is currently happening is promising.

The VA is also testing whether a service dog or an emotional support animal — ESA — might be a better fit for supporting PTSD sufferers. Some veterans in the study will receive service dogs, others ESAs.

The importance of this detail comes from the designation — service animals are covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, while ESAs are not. This means that if you have an ESA, you cannot take them into restaurants and other pet-prohibited locations.

The P.A.W.S. Act

A new bill may also bring a ray of hope into the lives of veterans who are suffering from PTSD.

According to its website, the purpose of the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (P.A.W.S.) Act — not to be confused with the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act of 2015 — is: “To inform members of Congress, using subject-matter experts and veterans with first-hand experience, the benefits of service dogs who assist veterans with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress; and to influence members of Congress to enact sound policy to expand veteran access to service dogs as medically necessary instruments for rehabilitation through the Veterans’ Affairs Department.”

As of May 2017, the bill’s last action was listed as being referred to the Subcommittee on Health. The bill itself can be viewed on the P.A.W.S. Act website.  If it passes, countless veterans suffering from fight-or-flight and other PTSD symptoms may finally find some relief.

Learn more about the P.A.W.S. Act in this video:

How Service Animals Can Help

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, in 2014, an estimated 20 veterans a day committed suicide. That is 7,300 deaths in a single year — a staggering number. Simply having a pet around has health benefits of its own, and having a pet trained to help a veteran cope with PTSD may be just enough to persuade that veteran to set aside thoughts of suicide and pick up the phone instead.

The proverbial jury is still out on whether service animals measurably help veterans suffering with PTSD to cope. But this pet lover thinks it just makes sense.

Additional Resources

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