Service dogs are saving veteran lives, despite limited access through VA
Veteran suicide is a growing national crisis, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to ignore a proven, inexpensive, side-effect free treatment — service dogs. The VA estimates that an average of 18 military veterans die by suicide every day, yet they refuse to cover service dogs under the insurance benefits that veterans earn through their military service.
Properly trained service dogs mitigate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), military sexual trauma and other mental health diagnoses. They accomplish this through specific tasks, such as recognizing and interrupting symptoms of PTSD with calming behaviors, waking up a veteran experiencing a nightmare, or creating space around their handler in crowded spaces. Countless veterans will testify to the positive impact service dogs bring to their emotional and physical state of mind. As part of a holistic treatment plan, service dogs provide an invaluable lifeline when traditional care methods alone do not suffice.
The Ongoing Reluctance to Cover Service Dog Costs
The VA repeatedly declines to expand insurance benefits that would cover the cost of a service dog for veterans with a mental health diagnosis, claiming a lack of documented proof verifying their effectiveness. Congress directed the department to investigate the issue by conducting its own study on the matter in 2010.
After more than 10 years and 16 million dollars, the VA is finally sharing its findings. Initial reports state the study found that trained Service Dogs can decrease the severity of PTSD symptoms more effectively than untrained emotional support animals. However, VA researchers ultimately conclude that service dogs do not deliver “observable” improvements in overall disability or quality of life for veterans. This is a disappointing result, as multiple studies from academic institutions and nonprofits have already disproven this conclusion.
Comparing the VA’s research with studies from Purdue University reveals the true depth and scope of a service dog’s effect on veterans with PTSD. More importantly, it reinforces the vital need for federal legislation that expands veterans’ access to this reliable treatment option.
Quality of Life Improvements for Veterans and their Families
Purdue University research published in Military Behavioral Health found that veterans paired with trained service dogs experience greater relationship satisfaction and fewer problems in family functioning. Moreover, the spouses and partners of these veterans report that the veterans show lower levels of anger, social isolation and work impairment. They also exhibit greater resilience, companionship and relationship satisfaction after pairing with a service dog.
The research even goes beyond evaluating veterans to capture a service dog’s impact on family members. Study participants saw improved emotional closeness between the veteran and their family members, as well as a reduction in distress among children. Caregivers also gained a greater measure of independence, reporting less worry about leaving a veteran home alone while running errands when a trained service dog is present.
These findings reinforce the fact that veterans, not to mention families and caregivers, experience a considerable improvement in quality of life following the introduction of a service dog.
Congress Acts to Expand Veteran Access to Service Dogs
The bottom line is that Service Dogs demonstrably lower the severity of PTSD and other mental health diagnoses for veterans. The challenge is that access to service dogs can be limiting, particularly from a financial perspective. Acquiring and caring for a service dog, one properly trained to mitigate symptoms of PTSD, can cost up to $25,000. The VA must expand its insurance benefits to help cover this cost for veterans seeking to mitigate the symptoms of service-related trauma.
Thankfully, Congress is acting to address this issue. Earlier this month, Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced H.R. 1022, or the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act. If passed, the PAWS Act would direct the VA to create a grant program, providing funds to eligible nonprofit organizations for training and pairing service dogs with veterans experiencing service-related mental health trauma.
The veteran suicide epidemic continues every day, making it more critical than ever for Congress to pass this bill. Every veteran experiencing PTSD deserves the ability to consider this proven treatment option and pair with a potentially life-saving service dog.
Rory Diamond is CEO of K9s for Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of Service Dogs for disabled American veterans and the largest Service Dog agency in the world using primarily rescue dogs. Learn more at www.k9sforwarriors.org.
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