The Humane Society of the United States is urging lawmakers to pass a package of bills to make it easier for veterans and service members to get therapy dogs.
The bills have bipartisan support, but animal rights advocates are making a new push to get the legislation through Congress, with lawmakers nearing their August recess with an already busy docket.
“At a time in a country when we are so polarized, this is a set of issues that we can unite around,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told The Hill. “The American public will be pleased that the Congress is getting something done and is doing something done that is aligned with their values.”
One of the bills, the Paws Act, would provide more service dogs to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Though veterans with physical disabilities already have access to service dogs, the bill would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to fund a five-year program to support organizations that provide companion animals to wounded veterans.
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The bill has been referred to the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health. There is a companion bill in the upper chamber from Sens. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerSenate Republicans raise concerns about TSA cyber directives for rail, aviation Austin, Milley to testify on Afghanistan withdrawal After messy Afghanistan withdrawal, questions remain MORE (R-Neb.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that has been referred to the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Another bill in the current Congress, the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act, would establish a pilot program allowing veterans with PTSD to take part in therapeutic dog training.
The bill passed the House in the last Congress, and was re-introduced this year by Reps. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.).
“Helping our veterans cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of the most solemn responsibilities of our time,” Walz told The Hill.
The bill calls for VA facilities to connect veterans with local dog training organizations and to study the therapeutic value of those programs.
Walz said the program would help veterans rehabilitate by training therapy dogs, which would then go on to assist other disabled veterans.
“As more research continues to be conducted, I believe this ‘veterans helping veterans’ pilot program carries great promise of improving the quality of life for all veterans involved,” Walz said.
Another bill, the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act, from Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), would allocate grants to nonprofits that train and provide service dogs to veterans with disabilities or PTSD. The bill is before a House Armed Services subcommittee.
Jones told The Hill he's seen a change in attitudes over the issue.
“Thanks to a lot of interests nationally was well within military, the whole attitude has changed that service men be given the opportunity to have a service dog after serving," he said.
Lawmakers, though, face a tough schedule ahead, leaving many to question when the bills will finally move. Congress must pass a spending bill, raise the debt ceiling and tackle GOP priorities, including ObamaCare repeal and tax reform.
Pacelle said the Humane Society is reaching out to lawmakers to push the legislation on veterans and animals along.
"We inform our constituents, lobby offices, write position papers, take advertising, rally millions of Americans, and do much more to advance our goals on Capitol Hill," he told The Hill.
"[The Humane Society] is all about getting the Congress to act on legislation to advance animal welfare."