Why Is It So Difficult for Veterans With PTSD to Get Service Dogs?

For 10 years, Adam LeGrand was a medic in the Air Force. Then he was injured in rollover accidents and by a pallet of cinderblocks falling on him in Qatar. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury (TBI) and became suicidal.

“The VA [Veterans Administration] put me on a dangerous cocktail of drugs," LeGrand said, "some of which were appropriate and some of which weren’t."

After one particularly scary blackout, he applied for a service dog from a nonprofit. But the VA refused to write a letter saying he had PTSD. Instead, he got the letter from a non-VA doctor—one of many times the VA has proven shamefully inept at helping veterans, especially those with mental health issues, the invisible wounds of war.

A little more than a year after his acceptance, K9s for Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of service dogs to military veterans with PTSD, TBI, and military sexual trauma (MST) due to service post-9/11, paired LeGrand with Molly, a rescued lab mix trained as a service dog.

“Molly makes things possible for me,” LeGrand says. Before Molly, he said, “I never went to my daughter’s first two seasons of gymnastics meets because I couldn’t deal with 30 kids, let alone 300.” Molly helps him get up when he falls and wakes him from nightmares. Now, he makes all of his daughter’s meets and his son’s T-ball games and is set to graduate from Syracuse University.

Molly Mae Potter, Ms. Veteran America of 2016, was knocked unconscious by a rocket blast to her base in Afghanistan in 2010. While she was undergoing therapy for PTSD and TBI, her mother sent Bella, the family’s rescue dog, to live with her. “She started waking me up from night terrors,” Potter said. After she had Bella trained as a service dog, she made a full recovery; now Bella’s mostly a beloved pet.   

Service dogs like Bella and Molly are not your average pets, and they’re different from emotional support animals. “It takes a special dog to be a service dog,” said Tahoma Guiry, spokesperson for K9s for Warriors. The dogs must have sound health and a sterling temperament.  

Training the dogs, which includes the Public Access Test and specific task training, can take anywhere from several months to two years. Waiting lists run a year to two years, and nonprofits estimate a trained service dog costs, on average, $20,000. Campaigns on sites like GoFundMe attest to the many who can’t afford a dog or don’t get hooked up with nonprofits.  

Yet it’s well worth it; veterans usually enter K9s for Warriors on 10 to 15 medications, and by graduation, 92 percent reduce or eliminate those medications, said executive director Rory Diamond, adding that, “Our warriors use far fewer health care services from the VA after they get a dog. The dogs pay for themselves in just a couple of years.”

So why haven’t we matched more service dogs to veterans with PTSD? The answer lies in our government’s unwillingness to provide funding. It also has to do with stigma. Dori Scofield, co-founder of Paws of War, a Long Island nonprofit providing service dogs who have been rescued to veterans with mental health needs, said, “If a veteran is an amputee, no problem. But the invisible wounds seem to be a problem.”  

Twenty veterans commit suicide per day. Closely correlated are the one-third of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with either PTSD, depression or TBI, according to the Rand Corporation. The Department of Defense estimated 14,900 service members experienced sexual assault in the military in 2016.

The VA talks about taking aggressive action, but it covers only the veterinary costs of service dogs for physical disabilities.

There may be hope if a bill with bipartisan support before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, H.R. 2327, or the PAWS Act, passes. It would provide nonprofits $10 million in grants to provide service dogs to veterans with PTSD. However, in typical doublespeak, a VA spokesperson said, “While VA does not support the PAWS Act at this time primarily for reasons related to funding, VA Secretary Shulkin wants to work with Congress to find a way to make properly trained dogs available for veterans’ emotional support in a way that makes sense within VA’s budget.”  

The VA also claims there aren’t enough studies on service dogs and PTSD, and while no one has proven benefits on a large double-blind scale, at least since the 1980s numerous studies have shown the salubrious effect of dogs and other animals on the heart, blood pressure and mood. Oxytocin and serotonin are a couple of the chemicals thought to be involved. A promising study led by Dr. Marguerite O’Haire at Purdue University, soon to release initial data, measures cortisol and sleep and may be the closest we have to proof positive.

In contrast, the VA’s own research looking at service dogs for PTSD, which began in 2011 and is estimated to cost $16 million by its end in 2019, was twice suspended due to bite incidents and reports of poor veterinary care. The redesigned effort has had “severe delays due to human resources problems” according to Michael Fallon, the VA’s chief veterinary medical officer, although a VA spokesperson says it is now fully staffed. (Fallon is the same veterinarian defending medical experimentation on dogs in the wake of an outcry about botched surgeries and cruelty.)

A crop of organizations are filling the growing need for mental health service dogs: some help train pet dogs; some breed dogs; some have prison training programs. While ADI (Assistance Dogs International) and Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans promote industry standards, there is no national registry. 

“The demand is bigger than the supply," said Scofield." But you can’t just say ‘This is a service dog, here ya go pal.’ You have to know what you’re doing and not do it lightly. Or else everybody is going to have a dog on a plane saying it’s a service dog and slapping a vest on it.”

Recent reports of fake service dogs causing injury show the danger of lax standards. It will take more than vests and visions of puppies to cure the wounds of war. The PAWS Act, VA support and public awareness would be good places to start.

As Molly Mae Potter said, “Dogs are healthier than tons of pills, booze, and other unhealthy habits. I am a very big advocate for the VA spending money and research on dogs for veterans. It may not be the answer for every patient, but it is a step in the right direction."


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