Don’t press pause on the PAWS Act
We train them to fight, but not to come home. When Mike, a U.S. Armed Forces veteran, retired, “things started to go off the rails… it hit me pretty hard.” Soon, he was unable to enjoy life, socialize with his family or go out with friends. He found himself staying inside and away from others — isolating in an attempt to cope.
That is until he met Justice, a specially trained service dog who gave Mike a new lease on life. Today, Mike can more fully enjoy the retirement he so rightfully earned despite the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress.
Mike’s success story can, and should, be replicated across the country with veterans in need. Thanks to the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act of 2021, introduced last week by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), that hope can become a reality.
The PAWS Act will allocate federal funds to pair veterans suffering from mental health issues with service dogs. This is a huge step in the right direction, but unless it is signed into law veterans who are struggling now won’t get the unconditional help and support they desperately need.
When servicemen and women return home, transitioning to civilian life can be difficult. And trauma from their service, which may not be as visible as broken bones, can be an impediment to living a healthy, fulfilled life. In fact, transitioning to civilian life is up to 26 percent more difficult for veterans who experienced a traumatic event while serving, according to a Pew survey.
Service-related trauma, sadly, is not uncommon, with up to one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans living with post-traumatic stress. Service dogs offer hope, and a healing leash, to these and other veterans who struggle to put on a brave front. According to a study of 141 military members and veterans, introducing service dogs into a treatment plan leads to “clinically significant reductions” in PTS symptoms, reduced depression and improved quality of life.
Earlier this year, the Veterans Health Administration released the results of a new study that provides further evidence for service dogs as PTS treatment. Researchers gauged the effects of both service and emotional support dogs on an individual’s post-traumatic stress disorder checklist (PCL-5), depression symptoms and suicidal measures. Being paired with a service dog mitigated symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation while improving scores on the PCL-5 by 3.7 percent.
It is a tragedy that service dogs aren’t more widely available, particularly because we know individuals diagnosed with PTS are 13 times more likely to commit suicide than those without. On top of that, studies reveal there is a suicide crisis in America with more veterans losing their lives to suicide each year than the entire number of soldiers lost in Iraq. It is a national crisis, and it deserves to be treated as such.
At American Humane, we train dogs such as Justice to become lifesaving companion animals for veterans like Mike, but our program can only scale so quickly, which is why the country needs federal support behind this issue. The consequences of not increasing the number of service dogs available to veterans are too high for this bill to stall.
America’s servicemen and women put their lives on the line for our freedoms. Ensuring that they can enjoy those freedoms to the fullest when they return is a top priority.
Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D., is president and CEO of American Humane and the author of “Mission Metamorphosis: Leadership for a Humane World.”