By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
President Biden recently signed the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act (PAWS), which increases the number of service dogs available to support veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions. We’re elated at the thought that more veterans will have access to the healing benefits of the human-animal bond, and that a decade of advocacy for this kind of program has culminated in this positive progress.
The PAWS Act calls for a pilot study on dog training therapy and authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide dogs to veterans with mental illness who participate in the dog training therapy program. Currently, the VA covers some costs of service dogs for veterans with physical disabilities such as blindness, hearing impairment and mobility issues. The new law requires the VA to provide grants to accredited service dog organizations to fulfil its mandate.
Mental health service dogs can assist people with PTSD by waking them from nightmares, responding to panic and anxiety attacks, helping them open doors, turning on lights or finding an exit from a crowded space if they are in distress. Dogs of all sorts are fit to serve, including Labradors, golden retrievers, mixed breeds and homeless, shelter animals—the latter a true example of one need beautifully meeting another.
The VA resisted passage of such legislation for a time, citing lack of sufficient research on the potential benefits, but in early 2021 a VA study of the value of pairing veterans with service dogs helped to clear the path. The VA study, which compared the experience of veterans with mental health service dogs with that of those paired with emotional support dogs, concluded that veterans paired specifically with the service dogs experienced a reduction in the severity of their PTSD symptoms compared to those with emotional support dogs. They also had fewer suicidal ideations and behaviors, particularly at the post-18 months stage of pairing. This conclusion proved good enough for the House of Representatives, which approved PAWS in an en bloc vote in May, and the Senate, which passed PAWS unanimously in early August, setting the stage for the President’s signing.
We are encouraged by other studies supporting the value of service dogs for veterans, and we will push for more research and funding to ensure that the VA program flourishes, and more veterans get the opportunity to benefit from the emotional and practical support that service dogs provide.
Our support for programs of this kind is driven by the experiences of people like Nick, who joined with Warrior Canine Connection to train dogs for service work, and Becca, whose life with Bobbi, a dog trained by K9s for Warriors, has helped her cope with the effects of PTSD. We hope to see stories like theirs become more common and more celebrated in the years ahead. The work of service dog training programs around the country has laid the foundation for the passing of the PAWS Act.
We’ve said this before and we say it here again because we believe it with our whole hearts: No society can afford to neglect the post-deployment well-being of its service members. We share the view of tens of millions of Americans that the nation has a special debt to those who have answered the nation’s call to duty. The alarming threat that PTSD and other mental health challenges pose to those who have served compels us to honor their faith and allegiance.
For all of us, the presence of companion animals brings myriad benefits—psychological, social and medical. Our bond with dogs is all about loyalty and devotion, character traits that veterans may understand even more deeply than the rest of us.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.