Service dogs for Veterans with PTSD? The Rest of the Story

U.S. Flag A Veteran’s Day story on NPR about service dogs and veterans caught my attention this morning. The story was only three minutes long, and the title made the issue sound black and white: “Advocates Say VA Is Taking Too Long To Assign Service Dogs To Vets.”

But like so many things, the story is not that simple.

I am blind, I live in Chicago, and I use a service dog to get around the city safely. My current Seeing Eye dog Whitney is ten years old now and has lost her fervor – and her ability – for guiding me safely through an urban environment. She is retiring soon, and the Seeing Eye School has been evaluating its string of dogs for months now to determine if one is an ideal match for my needs. When they find a good match for me I will travel to their school in New Jersey and spend three weeks with my new dog and experienced trainers there before heading back home. But these things take time. I’d been schedule to attend the December class, but when they determined they didn’t have the right match for me, I was rescheduled for the January 2020 class.

All to say, training a dog to help a person with a disability, and then making a perfect match between the two of them doesn’t happen in a day. Rushing the process would be unfair to the human being, and, especially, to the dog. Service dogs have a lot of responsibility – it’s not an easy job – and is nothing to rush into.

And then there’s the question as to whether dogs who help people with mental health issues are pets, or service dogs. Today’s NPR story referred to a study at Purdue University that found that in addition to the physical tasks service dogs – more specifically, mobility and medical alert service dogs – do for their human partners, they can also provide help with low self-esteem, build confidence, decrease social isolation, and increase the feelings of independence in their human partner. I can certainly vouch for that: traveling with Whitney, havoing her lead me directly to elevator buttons rather than feeling around for them, gliding through doorways without my shoulder running into a doorframe, knowing she’ll stop at stairways and curbs so I don’t stumble…it all leaves me with a sense of dignity. People who see us admire us, and I no longer feel a sense of pity from strangers. But while the V.A. covers the costs of training and ongoing care of service dogs for veterans with certain physical disabilities, like blindness or vision impairment, it does not cover costs for dogs assisting veterans with mental health issues. Why not? Not enough clinical evidence to prove the benefits dogs can give in treating mental health issues.

Today’s NPR story failed to give the reasons behind the VA’s decision on this, but in a longer NPR piece on this in 2017, they interviewed Dr. Michael Fallon, the V.A.’s chief veterinarian on the subject. “I would say there are a lot of heartwarming stories that service dogs help, but scientific basis for that claim is lacking,” he said. “The V.A. is based on evidence-based medicine. We want people to use therapy that has proven value.” A story in the February 14, 2019 issue of Purdue University News reports researchers there are leading studies regarding how psychiatric service dogs may help veterans with PTSD, and how research has revealed how service dogs might offer both psychosocial and physiological benefits to veterans. Right now the research group is conducting a clinical trial studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time.

Just wanted to get all this down in a post to help our blog readers understand this issue is a bit more complicated than it looks sometimes, and the barrage of people bringing pets into public places and claiming them as service dogs complicates it further. I’ll say goodbye here and leave you with information about an ongoing VA study about service dogs reported in a New York Times story this past summer:

The V.A. is currently conducting research into the effectiveness of service dogs, but the process has been slow. Research started in 2011 was supposed to wrap up in 2015 but has repeatedly been stalled by problems with the study’s design and execution. In May, the V.A. said the findings of the study, which has cost $16 million to date, would be released to the public in 2020.


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