Vets with PTSD Wait Years for Service Dog due to VA Study Delays

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July 26, 2016, KHOU-TV (CBS Affiliate, Texas)

Service dogs are tail-wagging ambassadors for all things safe, positive, and possible in the world. Patriot PAWS Service Dogs in Rockwall, Texas, trains and provides service dogs at no cost to disabled American veterans and others with mobile disabilities. These dogs help restore their owners’ physical and emotional independence. But the waiting list for these dogs is years long because it takes up to two years to train them at a cost of approximately $33,000 per dog.

The dogs are effective in recognizing the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in their owners and there are many veterans waiting on one of their own. Terry Stringer, of Patriot Paws, says there are currently 130 veterans on their waitlist, which translates to a three to five-year waiting list. Stringer showed us two puppies at the beginning of their training.

“I cannot tell you 100 percent that either one of those puppies will make it as a service dog,” Stringer said. “Our rate is 58 percent, which is higher than the national average.” They hope a development will help increase those numbers.

Each dog in Patriot PAWS training learns commands that meet the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) Public Access Certification Test. Dogs that do not become certified are placed for adoption.

The need is pressing. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 percent of Iraqi war veterans. Nevertheless, the help that is urgently needed is being delayed. While veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder insist that service dogs lead to remarkable improvements, the research that would support their widespread use has yet to materialize.

The use of service dogs to treat PTSD is relatively new. Patriot PAWS itself was founded in 2006. Veterans need the Department of Veterans Affairs study to validate their personal experiences with science that could support implementing and funding widespread therapeutic use.

In an April 2016 statement, Dr. Michael Fallon, Chief Veterinary Medical Officer in the Office of Research and Development at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) included this update on the study before the Subcommittee on National Security at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

Currently, VA does not provide benefits for PTSD or mental health dogs because they are not known to be effective in overcoming specific functional limitations; this study is incredibly important in building the evidence base. VA continues to monitor other scientific literature for quality evidence to inform future policies and remains strongly committed to completing the current PTSD and service dog study at an estimated cost of at least $12 million.

The VA’s pilot study began in 2011 but was suspended twice—once when two dogs bit children of veterans, and again when the health of some of the dogs in the study was compromised. Lack of availability of trained dogs has also been a problem for VA researchers, according to Fallon’s testimony. The study was redesigned and at least one new VA staff position created in the wake of the problems.

Service dogs have been helping people who are blind, deaf, or have other physical disabilities for many years. Patriot PAWS meets almost all its $1.3 million annual budget through contributions. So much more could be accomplished if the VA found the wherewithal, with or without a completed study, to make service dogs an approved treatment for PTSD.

Here’s how this TV news segment on Patriot PAWS described the need and the solution:

Retired U.S. Army Ranger Aaron Mixel is standing on the side of a road in Rockwall; it’s something he says he couldn’t do two years ago.

“You look around most streets and you see debris on the sides and the work cones, and these are things they’ve put IEDs in,” he said.

[…]

“It took me three-and-a-half hours to drive here because cars and things on the side of the road blow up in the countries where we come from,” he said of his drive to the nonprofit in Rockwall. Mixel was eventually introduced to a service dog named Chief. “You really focus on the dog and not what’s going on around you,” he said.

“I wouldn’t know the science behind it and I don’t know the training behind it,” he continued. “I just know that when the dog sat in my lap I didn’t notice what was going on around me.”

—James Schaffer