Lawmakers Push VA to Provide Service Dogs to Vets After a Decade of Failed Efforts

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A golden retriever service dog named Bradley.
A golden retriever named Bradley lays in shade on porch, June 18, 2014, at his trainers house in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bradley is being trained to be a service dog with Smoky Mountain Service Dogs to help assist disabled veterans. (AP Photo/The Daily Times, Mark A Large)

A measure reintroduced in the House would order the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for and provide service dogs to veterans suffering from mental health issues, following years of fruitless attempts.

The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS, Act, introduced by Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., would require the VA to create a grant program to pay for and provide service dogs to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health ailments.

The VA covers some costs of service dogs for veterans with certain physical disabilities, such as blindness, but has never conceded that the animals are beneficial as a mental health treatment, despite studies showing dog therapy can be a critical tool for treating such patients.

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The agency has been researching the topic for more than a decade. It wrapped up its latest study last year and found that veterans with service dogs pose a lower risk of suicide than those with emotional support animals. However, the VA has not yet released the study publicly.

"Research from VA has concluded that service dogs are a proven therapy for those suffering from PTSD," Rutherford said at a media event Wednesday.

Service dogs have formal training and credentialing, as opposed to emotional support animals, which do not need either. However, VA doctors can designate a veteran's pet as a support animal, allowing patients to skirt around hurdles from landlords and breed restrictions in some municipalities. In some cases, it makes it easier to fly with the animal.

The VA tried to study the benefits of providing service dogs to veterans in 2011, but the effort was halted after two service dogs bit children in veterans' homes. Further problems with the health and training of some of the dogs led to a second suspension of the study in 2012, according to the department.

This is the fourth time the PAWS Act has been introduced in some form. It passed the House last year but gained no traction in the Senate. Lawmakers and advocates have pointed to growing academic evidence of the benefits of service dogs, including the VA's unreleased study. That study concedes their usefulness, which could give the effort momentum.

Providing service dogs to veterans is seen by some as a much-needed alternative therapy amid a widely acknowledged suicide crisis.

Between 2005 and 2018, 89,160 veterans died by suicide, according to the most recent data from the VA -- more than the number of Americans killed in each major U.S. conflict except World War II and the Civil War.

Despite a seemingly endless wave of good intentions from Congress and a ballooning VA budget, there's no evidence the federal government has put a dent into the veteran suicide crisis, with VA’s data showing little change in the suicide numbers each year. The agency hasn't announced any new high-profile initiatives, a stark contrast to the lightning speed with which the Biden administration has tackled other issues since January.

"Frankly, it's comical except it's not funny that the VA has been studying this issue, thinking about it, pondering over it for a decade," said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla. "Veterans should have a full menu of options and different types of therapies, whether that's service dogs, hyperbaric chambers, or other alternative therapy. We have to get out of this paradigm of just providing drugs to vets."

The bill would give grants of up to $25,000 to eligible organizations to provide service dogs for veterans. K9s for Warriors, a group heavily lobbying for the effort, trains rescue dogs and matches them to veterans suffering from PTSD.

Nonprofits are one of the only avenues for veterans to adopt service dogs. The VA doesn't provide any funds for service or emotional support animals but concluded a congressionally mandated study on the benefits of dogs for PTSD care last July.

One of K9s for Warriors' clients emphasized the importance of service dogs.

"When I came back from Iraq, I found myself with a lot of anxiety and depression," said Becca Stephens, an Iraq War veteran who was paired with a dog through the group. "For seven years, I was a full-blown heroin junkie. ... I often refer it to the greatest dating match-up; since getting Bobi in 2018, I have been completely sober. She just brings the life out of me."

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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