In September 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) amended its regulations concerning service dogs for veterans. They decided that they will pay for costs only associated with a service dog only in cases of physical disability. “Under this rule, VA will provide to veterans with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments benefits to support the use of a service dog as part of the management of such impairments.” According to the VA, there is not enough research to prove that mental health service dogs (i.e., therapy dogs) are effective to their recovery, and thus, cannot justify providing the benefit.
In addition, the VA has also decided that in order to receive a service dog benefit, you must complete a training course with your dog through Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation. Once completed, the VA will pay for the costs associated with veterinary care, travel associated with buying and training the dog, along with hardware required for the dog to be able to assist the veteran. However, the day-to-day costs of owning the pet (like food and grooming, for example) are not covered.
While service dogs are most often associated with veterans with physical disabilities, more and more veterans suffering from unseen disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are relying on service dogs for help. In fact, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are suffering from PTSD.
With PTSD, acclimating to life outside the military is nearly debilitating. Some veterans suffer from anxiety, fear, and depression, or even sink into substance abuse in order to cope with their time of service. While they are encouraged to seek counseling and treatment, some veterans may have a difficult time reaching out because of the stigmas associated with mental illness. Some may not want to be seen as being “weak.”
But with a service dog, a veteran can have a companion that provides many of the healing benefits of therapy without the social stigma. A dog can be trained to sense anxiety in their owner and help redirect their attention. Or if a veteran has a hard time in large groups of people, the service dog can give its owner a cue that someone is approaching from behind. It can help veterans who have anxiety with trying to connect to people on a social level by providing a reason to leave the house. If a veteran suffers from debilitating nightmares, a service dog can be trained to wake up their owner and calm their fears.
There are thousands of veterans who have learned to relive thanks to the help and comfort of a service dog. But I think the thanks should go to those organizations that help provide service dogs. One of the organizations I’ve talked about before is Stiggy’s Dogs, a local organization that helps veterans across the country suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries by pairing them with a psychiatric service dog. The owners, Jen and Joe Petre, started Stiggy’s Dogs as a way to honor their nephew HM3 Benjamin “Doc Stiggy” Castiglione who “gave his life working as a Corpsman in Helmand Province, Southern Afganistan.” They can tell you first-hand about the hundreds of veterans whose lives have improved with their help, who may have not found help otherwise.
There are also organizations like Paws and Stripes, Next Step Service Dogs, Soldier’s Best Friend, Operation Freedom Paws, and Pets for Vets, among many more, who make it their goal to provide a better life for veterans.
Organizations like these will continue to work to partner their pets with veterans in need with or without the financial support of the VA. However, to the VA’s credit, they are conducting in-depth research to get more conclusive results regarding the benefits of a psychiatric service dog. I’m fairly certain they will come to the conclusion that many already have. They do not need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to discover how these service dogs help. You can ask just one of the thousands of veterans across the country if their service dog saved their life, and I guarantee you that the answer you receive will be a resounding “YES!” Ask Frank DeLorenzo. Ask Ray Galmiche. Ask Luis Zaragoza. Ask James Stanek. Ask Robert Soliz. Ask Jennifer Haeffner. And on and on.
If you, or someone you know, is a veteran who could benefit from the healing help of a psychiatric service dog, please don’t hesitate to contact Stiggy’s Dogs or one of the other amazing service organizations. Not only could you help save a soldier’s life, but could help a dog in need find a forever home.