Some 241 years ago, in Philadelphia, on a hot day in early July, the United States declared itself as a free and self-determining nation by adopting the Declaration of Independence. As the July 4 holiday approaches, it’s natural to look forward to parades, parties, and barbecues. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect upon the sacrifices of those in our armed services, whose efforts have helped to produce and maintain so many of the blessings we enjoy, and to consider ways in which we can return the favor.
One of the best ways available is through therapy dog programs that assist soldiers and veterans in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At The HSUS, we’re particularly interested in efforts to establish federal support for animal-assisted therapy programs that pair off wounded warriors with dogs as part of the healing process. One such measure, the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) Act, H.R. 2327, recently re-introduced by Congressmen Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., authorizes the Veterans Administration to establish a grants program for eligible organizations providing service dogs to veterans with severe PTSD, and asks the department to pull together evidence of proof of concept from the outside parties. We support it, and so does a bipartisan group of 145 House cosponsors. The Senate companion bill, S. 1014, by Senators Deb Fisher, R-Neb., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., also has tremendous support.
Other lawmakers are pushing for similar objectives. In early May, Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, re-introduced the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act, H.R. 2225, with Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., to set up a program for veterans suffering from PTSD to participate in therapeutic dog training and handling. Their bill would establish a pilot program at Veterans Administration facilities, to help veterans directly and to establish, via data collection and analysis, the effectiveness and impact of such programs. These facilities would connect veterans to local therapeutic dog training organizations, which would be responsible for the dogs’ housing and care. Once trained, the service dogs would be given to physically disabled veterans. Members of the House passed the Stivers-Walz bill in the last Congress but the Senate did not act on it.
Meanwhile, Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., have introduced a third bill, the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act, H.R. 2625, which calls for grants to nonprofit organizations that currently train service dogs for service members and veterans with physical limitations or PTSD, and they’ve worked successfully to obtain $11 million during the past three years for the Defense Department to fund these grants.
All three of the bills address the challenge of paying for the development and placement of properly and humanely trained service dogs, the main obstacle to scaling up the good programs that already exist throughout the country. I’m delighted that congressional leaders are trying to do something to advance therapy dog programs as part of a solution to this painful and widespread social problem.
At The HSUS, we have long celebrated the human-animal bond as it has manifested in relations between soldiers and service dogs. In 2011, I published The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, which included a discussion of the extraordinary chemistry that exists between people and pets and the emotional and physical benefits that such relationships produce. Some years ago, I was moved by Lieutenant Jay Kopelman’s books, From Baghdad to America: Life Lessons from a Dog Named Lava. I was struck by Jay’s candor and concern about PTSD as an urgent and emerging challenge.
Currently, moviegoers across the nation are seeing “Megan Leavey,” a stirring film about a real-life Marine dog handler in Iraq and her efforts to adopt her retired bomb detection dog, Rex, with whom she had completed 100 missions. The film stars actress and animal advocate Kate Mara, and was directed by Gabriella Cowperthwaite of “Blackfish” fame. Leavey’s intense bond with Rex, and her own experience of PTSD, spurred her efforts to adopt him, and (spoiler alert) U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., intervened with the Air Force so that Megan could bring Rex home for a few happy months before his death in 2012.
On this July 4th, let’s celebrate with family and friends, for sure. But let’s resolve to do something to advance programs that bring together soldiers and man’s best friend, in healthy, happy, and healing relationships.