Department of Veterans Affairs Suspends Support of Service Dogs for Soldiers with PTSD


Scientists around the world have confirmed that for some conditions a wagging tail might help more than a pharmaceutical. One such condition is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There are scientific studies (though limited in number) that support the positive effects of dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD, and literally thousands of real-life anecdotal instances. “I couldn’t handle it anymore; I was pushing away people I loved,” says Ray Galmiche, a Vietnam War vet with PTSD in Navarre, FL. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for Dazzle (a German Shepherd Dog).” He added that is not too melodramatic to say that his service dog saved his life.

A few years ago, Congress mandated that additional scientific study be conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on the impact of service dogs paired with PTSD vets. The study, launched in June 2011, was to follow 230 PTSD vets and their service dogs, tracking them and their families through 2014.

After enrolling fewer than two dozen dogs, the VA just announced that it has suspended the study. What’s more, the VA indicated that it no longer will support service dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD (and instead will only support dogs partnered with veterans with visible disabilities).

This move apparently even took Congress by surprise. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was so affronted, he quickly held a press conference and issued a press release. Schumer replied to a request for further comment via email:  “It’s of the utmost importance that we provide our vets with every option available to treat service related ailments. For some vets who suffer from PTSD and other mental illnesses, this means service dogs. Especially as the wars are winding down, and more and more soldiers are returning home with mental trauma, the VA must continue to allow their doctors and mental health professionals to provide benefits to veterans who need mental health service dogs.”

According to the VA, there are about 400,000 veterans currently in treatment for PTSD, and among that group, rates of divorce, substance abuse and unemployment exceed that of the general population. The suicide rate for those with PTSD is off the map, with 32 to 39 suicide attempts daily, and about half of the attempts succeeding.

The nonprofit Paws for Purple Hearts is one of several groups that provide certified therapy dogs for PTSD patients. The organization began in 2008, with PTSD-patient veterans helping to train dogs for veterans with physical disabilities. “We immediately learned that the dogs benefited the ‘trainers’ with PTSD as much the disabled veterans they were eventually paired with,” says Robert Porter, CEO/executive director.

In each instance, Porter says, medical professionals at VA Palo Alto (CA) Health Care System witnessed dramatic changes among PTSD veterans paired with dogs, including fewer medications (sometimes eliminating them altogether) and an improved quality of life, including fewer flashbacks and nightmares.

“One hallmark of PTSD is avoidance (of going outdoors and socializing with others),” says Porter. “That’s hard to do with a 60-pound dog who just wants to go out and play.”

Guardian Angels Medical Services of Williston, FL., was one of the three groups involved in the VA study (the other two were New Horizons Service Dogs of Orange City, FL., and Freedom Service Dogs of Englewood, CO).

According to reports, the explanation for halting the VA study cited concerns about dogs biting children; dirty, cramped living conditions that caused animals to suffer illnesses such as worms and diarrhea; and faulty record-keeping.

That “explanation” leaves Carol Borden, founder and executive director of non-profit Guardian Angels, perplexed. The majority of dogs enrolled in the limited study, she says, were from her organization, and there were no biting incidents. Borden has helped pair dozens of service dogs with veterans over the years and says she’s never received a single complaint about a dog’s temperament. As for veterinary care, it was paid for as a part of the study.

Borden says that in her organization’s history, in every instance the veteran with PTSD has benefited by having a dog. Many go from 12 or more meds daily to half that, or even to no meds at all. “We’ve not experienced a single suicide attempt as far as we know,” Borden says. “I have letters from wives thanking us because the (personality of their) husband has returned, and it all happens because of a dog who provides unconditional love.”

Instead of the veterans depending on government subsidies, many PTSD vets with dogs find jobs.

“It (the VA’s directive) doesn’t make sense,” Borden says. She intimated that since vets paired with dogs require fewer meds, pharmaceutical companies may have lobbied for the VA’s new position. Another possibility is that the VA was told to cut its budget, period. And even if the decision will cost taxpayers more dollars, and impact the quality of life of veterans, the department isn’t paying.

“I understand the need for further published scientific evidence, but the overwhelming anecdotal personal stories of veterans who say they’ve gotten their lives back as a result of a service dog should matter,” says Amy McCullough, national director of animal assisted therapy of the Washington, D.C., based American Humane Association. “With all the returning veterans with PTSD, we don’t have the luxury to say ‘let’s think it over’ when we could be saving lives.”

(Next week: More with Ray Galmiche, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with PTSD, and what his service dog does for him daily. “I know my dog has my back,” he says. “I never thought a dog could do this. My life has changed.”)

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services