In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) introduced this bill to create a pilot program for veterans to learn how to train therapy dogs and reap benefits from working with them:
“A soldier under my command during Operation Iraqi Freedom recently told me what his service dog means to him: he was able to fly on a plane for the first time in 10 years and he took his fiancée to dinner. That is the impact this bill can have on the lives of our veterans. I’m incredibly grateful to our coalition for their efforts to create this program, and I look forward to getting this bill signed into law so that our veterans can receive the care they need.”
In a separate statement, Rep. Stivers argued that dog training will benefit veterans’ mental health in a number of ways:
“The dog training will give these veterans a new mission and that's training a dog for service. And the skills they learn in that training are something that is clinically shown to reduce the incidents of depression, to improve interpersonal relationships, to lower the risk of substance abuse, and to lower the instance of suicide.”
Rep. Stivers noted that some veterans have told him that having a service dog has helped them reduce or even cease their medications: “If you can do it with a service dog and get off the drugs, great; if you still need the drugs, that's OK, too. But we've heard anecdotally a lot of people getting off the drugs as a result of these service dogs."
Original cosponsor Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) adds that this bill is necessary in light of the 20 veterans lost to suicide each day:
“Service dogs have been proven to help people suffering from a wide array of mental health issues, and that is especially true of veterans living with post-traumatic stress. And with 20 veterans dying every day by suicide, this bill isn't just about improving lives, it's about saving lives. We need to ensure that our veterans have access to every available mental health resource, and that includes service dogs. As a Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I'm proud to support this bill and will continue to fight for our veterans and ensure that they receive the high-quality care they need and deserve.”
Christopher Baity, founder and executive director of Virginia-based Semper K9 Assistance Dogs, supports this bill. He says, “This bill is essential to veterans who need psychiatric service dogs. It will ensure that the highest quality service dogs are being placed with those veterans by reputable organizations.”
Christine Myran, executive director of Blue Star Service Dogs, a nonprofit that has paired approximately 150 service dogs and veterans in Michigan, says that service dogs can be therapeutic tools to treat PTSD, and that the overall training is part of the process.
The VA is skeptical about service dogs’ ability to help veterans with PTSD. In a statement on its website, it says:
“Currently, there is not enough research to know if dogs help treat PTSD and its symptoms. Evidence-based therapies and medications for PTSD are supported by clinical research. We encourage you to learn more about these treatments because it is difficult to draw strong conclusions from the few studies on dogs and PTSD that have been done."
This legislation has 118 bipartisan cosponsors, including 78 Republicans and 40 Democrats.
Of Note: Research conducted by Kaiser Permanente and Purdue University has shown that working with service dogs alleviates the symptoms of PTS, leading to better interpersonal relationships, lower risk of substance abuse, and overall better mental health. In the study, 141 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from PTSD were split into two groups, one of which received trained service dogs (75 veterans, the dog group) and the other of which was put on the waiting list to get a dog (66 veterans, the wait list group).
At the end of the study, the dog group’s PTSD symptom scores dropped an average of 12 points while the PTSD scores of those on the waiting list hadn’t changed at all. The dog group also had numerous other indicia of improved mental health, including:
- Lower depression scores;
- Better mental quality of life scores;
- Greater satisfaction with life;
- Higher levels of psychological well-being;
- Better ability to cope with adversity;
- Lower social isolation scores; and
- Greater ability to get out and participate in social activities.
The VA has been conducting a study on the effectiveness of service dogs for over four years. Until now, Congress has wanted to wait until that study’s completion before considering legislation on increasing veterans’ access to service dogs. However, Rep. Stivers says it’s past time to take action. He says, “We can't wait anymore. We have up to 22 military and veteran suicides a day. Why should we wait?"
Prior to the current ongoing study, the VA conducted a disastrous study on service dogs’ use in treating PTSD from 2011 to 2012. The study encountered numerous problems: first, the researchers struggled to recruit subjects for the control group. Then, dogs in the study bit two children, several developed hip dysplasia, one died from heart disease, and another died from cancer.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Jason Hohnberger)