Department of Veterans Affairs Suspends Support of Service Dogs for Soldiers with PTSD

Department of Veterans Affairs Suspends Support of Service Dogs for Soldiers with PTSD

Scientists around the world have confirmed that for some conditions a wagging tail might help more than a pharmaceutical. One such condition is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There are scientific studies (though limited in number) that support the positive effects of dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD, and literally thousands of real-life anecdotal instances. "I couldn't handle it anymore; I was pushing away people I loved," says Ray Galmiche, a Vietnam War vet with PTSD in Navarre, FL. "I don't know what would have happened to me if it wasn't for Dazzle (a German Shepherd Dog)." He added that is not too melodramatic to say that his service dog saved his life.

A few years ago, Congress mandated that additional scientific study be conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on the impact of service dogs paired with PTSD vets. The study, launched in June 2011, was to follow 230 PTSD vets and their service dogs, tracking them and their families through 2014.

After enrolling fewer than two dozen dogs, the VA just announced that it has suspended the study. What's more, the VA indicated that it no longer will support service dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD (and instead will only support dogs partnered with veterans with visible disabilities).

This move apparently even took Congress by surprise. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was so affronted, he quickly held a press conference and issued a press release. Schumer replied to a request for further comment via email:  "It's of the utmost importance that we provide our vets with every option available to treat service related ailments. For some vets who suffer from PTSD and other mental illnesses, this means service dogs. Especially as the wars are winding down, and more and more soldiers are returning home with mental trauma, the VA must continue to allow their doctors and mental health professionals to provide benefits to veterans who need mental health service dogs."

According to the VA, there are about 400,000 veterans currently in treatment for PTSD, and among that group, rates of divorce, substance abuse and unemployment exceed that of the general population. The suicide rate for those with PTSD is off the map, with 32 to 39 suicide attempts daily, and about half of the attempts succeeding.

The nonprofit Paws for Purple Hearts is one of several groups that provide certified therapy dogs for PTSD patients. The organization began in 2008, with PTSD-patient veterans helping to train dogs for veterans with physical disabilities. "We immediately learned that the dogs benefited the 'trainers' with PTSD as much the disabled veterans they were eventually paired with," says Robert Porter, CEO/executive director.

In each instance, Porter says, medical professionals at VA Palo Alto (CA) Health Care System witnessed dramatic changes among PTSD veterans paired with dogs, including fewer medications (sometimes eliminating them altogether) and an improved quality of life, including fewer flashbacks and nightmares.

"One hallmark of PTSD is avoidance (of going outdoors and socializing with others)," says Porter. "That's hard to do with a 60-pound dog who just wants to go out and play."

Guardian Angels Medical Services of Williston, FL., was one of the three groups involved in the VA study (the other two were New Horizons Service Dogs of Orange City, FL., and Freedom Service Dogs of Englewood, CO).

According to reports, the explanation for halting the VA study cited concerns about dogs biting children; dirty, cramped living conditions that caused animals to suffer illnesses such as worms and diarrhea; and faulty record-keeping.

That "explanation" leaves Carol Borden, founder and executive director of non-profit Guardian Angels, perplexed. The majority of dogs enrolled in the limited study, she says, were from her organization, and there were no biting incidents. Borden has helped pair dozens of service dogs with veterans over the years and says she's never received a single complaint about a dog's temperament. As for veterinary care, it was paid for as a part of the study.

Borden says that in her organization's history, in every instance the veteran with PTSD has benefited by having a dog. Many go from 12 or more meds daily to half that, or even to no meds at all. "We've not experienced a single suicide attempt as far as we know," Borden says. "I have letters from wives thanking us because the (personality of their) husband has returned, and it all happens because of a dog who provides unconditional love."

Instead of the veterans depending on government subsidies, many PTSD vets with dogs find jobs.

"It (the VA's directive) doesn't make sense," Borden says. She intimated that since vets paired with dogs require fewer meds, pharmaceutical companies may have lobbied for the VA's new position. Another possibility is that the VA was told to cut its budget, period. And even if the decision will cost taxpayers more dollars, and impact the quality of life of veterans, the department isn't paying.

"I understand the need for further published scientific evidence, but the overwhelming anecdotal personal stories of veterans who say they've gotten their lives back as a result of a service dog should matter," says Amy McCullough, national director of animal assisted therapy of the Washington, D.C., based American Humane Association. "With all the returning veterans with PTSD, we don't have the luxury to say 'let's think it over' when we could be saving lives."

(Next week: More with Ray Galmiche, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with PTSD, and what his service dog does for him daily. "I know my dog has my back," he says. "I never thought a dog could do this. My life has changed.")

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services

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  • I'm appalled. This program needs to be reinstated. I've put your blog post on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ in the hope of spreading the word.

  • In reply to petxpert:

    Having been personally involved in the organization mentioned in the article I will say this - two of the organizations did have dogs bite and that was the original reason that the study was placed on hold. The dogs at Guardian Angels were overcrowded and sick and for this reason the study was placed on hold again. There were not "dozens" of dogs placed but approximately 13 and these dogs have greatly improved the condition that the vets suffered from - the study is not over but suspended until a different organization, or individual trainers can be found and the dogs that have been placed will remain with the vets and will get the care that was part of the study.

  • In reply to Angie Korab:

    Let me first say that this is not about who is right and who is wrong over these unending, unfounded accusations and ugliness. It is about the Veterans who are caught in the middle and are the ones truly being hurt by all of this! It is interesting how easily people listen to others' stories and take them as fact. Because the VA is a large and powerful organization, should we stop believing the thousands of people that claim to not be getting the health care and proper treatment they have been promised and deserve? Instead the VA has only confused, upset and raised the anxiety of our Veterans with PTSD. To prove a point to the comments from Angie above, the question should be asked if you were there when these alleged dog bites took place at the other organizations? I too believed the VA when I was first told the story. The program was shut down for six months as a result even though Guardian Angels was successfully pairing dogs with no issues whatsoever. I have since learned that the allogations against the other two organizations were fabricated just as many other recent slanderous statements have been. I have to apologize to my fellow organizations for believing the stories without talking to them personally. There are always two sides to every story. I guess over crowded conditions must be subjective since Guardian Angels has mostly 50 x 50 yards and larger on our 35 plus acre facility. Each yard has 2 to 4 dogs that play together unless they are young puppies and then there may be more in together. I guess "sick" is subjective as well since Guardian Angels has countless celebrities, politicians, tours, reporters, university groups, etc. visiting the facility nearly weekly, not to mention visits from many dog health professionals, veterinarians (not contected to the VA and that have true working credentials rather than researchers that are totally unfamiliar with current medicine), etc. that have all given us glowing reports in writing. It is true that Guardian Angels has not placed dozens of dogs for the PTSD Pilot Program, however, they have placed 15 of the 17 on the program and many other service dogs and recipients have been placed outside of the PTSD program to mitigate multiple other disabilities. Furthermore, according to today's press release, the VA has permanently shut down the VA PTSD pilot program due to lack of funding. Perhaps people should be more interested in being true to a cause, knowing the whole truth from "hear say" and knowing when they are being played to ride on a bus to destruction. At the end of the day, I pray there are no suicides due to the twisted information that has been presented by multiple sources. Regardless of the VA shutting down the program, Guardian Angels is well aware of the amazing improvements these dogs have brought to the lives of our Veterans. Within the Guardian Angels program there have been no suicide attempts, no divorces and best of all these Veterans have either dramatically decreased their medications or gotten off of them altogether. The bus of destruction that I referred to above is not running over Guardian Angels, it's running over our Veterans and their hopes to restore their lives. Guardian Angels was pairing dogs before the VA ever came along and will continue to help as many Veterans as we possibly can every year. We don't need the VA to continue our mission to help America's bravest. In fact, we are not interested in playing in their sandbox of lies and deceit.

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    In reply to petxpert:

    The VA covers visually impaired and mobility service dogs. I have a mobility service dog that is a Dept Of Veterans Affairs Service Dog. The VA has a long ways to go to have us not go thru red tape just to get them to pay for veterinary care (doctor approved as VA Government vendor).. So, I carry with me a letter stating that my dogs are approved.

  • that's the key Darlene Arden (truly an expert).....spreading the word.....

  • they serve our governments needs and our government does not serve theirs!!!!

    an abject disgrace. our veterans will suffer, and so will many dogs, who will be euthanized instead of being service dogs

    FOR SHAME!!!!

  • Karenlyonskalmenson - YES - it is a disgrace - perfect word...thank you

  • I've seen proof of what dogs can do. These men and women were willing to sacrifice life and limb for us. And when they come home, trained dogs are willing to do the same for them. It's a win-win situation. Discontinuation of this program means lose-lose all over. Thanks for the work you do for dogs, Steve, and for our veterans as well.

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    I am a veteran and a dog lover. This is not only short-sided but it is truly stupid. A service dog may be the only hope for many wounded vets.
    I hope that dog people across the country write to the VA.

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    It seems to me that they've simply realized that service dogs are expensive, there are many people who suffer from PTSD, and they don't want to pay the bill!!! This is absolutely horrendous treatment of our veterans. Even if the dogs were placebos, they should be given to anyone who comes home damaged after putting themselves in harm's way so that we don't have to. What a cowardly and despicable way to respond to the suffering of our warriors.

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