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Service Dogs for Veterans Get a Paw Up
House passes pilot for training dogs, including shelter pups
U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., introduced the Veterans _Dog Training Therapy Act._

We’ve been tracking the progress of efforts to pair service dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other post-deployment mental health conditions. We’ve cheered funding, training initiatives and research into the benefits. Slowly but surely the idea that dogs can provide major benefits to veterans is gaining traction in Washington.

Last week, the enterprise got a serious boost, when the House unanimously passed veterans’ health care legislation that included the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (H.R. 198). If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama, the legislation will create a pilot program for training dogs as service dogs to assist veterans with disabilities.

“As a veteran, and an American, I am thrilled that this legislation has passed the House,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., a Marine combat veteran who introduced the bill. “I urge my colleagues in the Senate to pass it without delay, so that it can be signed into law and allow us to begin providing assistance to our returning veterans.”

Already studies have demonstrated that a service dog can reduce symptoms for veterans suffering from PTSD. Caring for a pet can help reduce stress, depression and suicide rates. Service dogs can also help veterans by doing things like waking them from terrifying nightmares and alerting to signs of and helping ward off panic attacks.

Even better, the legislation directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to “consider dogs residing in animal shelters or foster homes for participation in the program.” Great news for homeless dogs and smart from a budget perspective, since purpose-bred dogs can cost as much as $50,000 each, according the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

OK Senate, now it’s your turn to do the right thing by veterans and dogs.

Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom. lisawogan.com

Photo: Office of Rep. Michael Grimm

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Dr. Joan Esnayr... | October 22 2011 |

This program seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden details the public needs to know about. First, the people behind this bill (those at Bergin University for Canine Studies) are opposed to psychiatric service dogs, in general, and do not want veterans with PTSD to have them. They are part of a contingent of people in the service dog world who believe that veterans with PTSD should have pets or should train service dogs to give away to others with physical disabilities, but should not themselves have their own psychiatric service dog. This perspective is founded upon the ignorance of stigma.

Here is a direct quote from the founder of the "Paws for Purple Hearts" (PPH) program taken from his July 25, 2011 testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Committee:

"Venuto, the PPH dog that was featured in the program, enhanced the mental health of 20+ Veterans with PTSD as they participated in his training. Venuto was then successfully partnered with a Veteran who is paraplegic as a result of a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). To substantially benefit over 20 Veterans [with PTSD] with one dog allows the VA to provide outreach to a greater number of Veterans without the logistical challenges of providing a dog to each Veteran [with PTSD]."

REFERENCE: http://veterans.house.gov/prepared-statement/prepared-statement-rick-you...

The Paws for Purple Hearts Program disqualifies any veteran with PTSD from participating in the program, if they are using or wish to use a psychiatric service dog for their own PTSD. This is on par with inviting diabetics to work in an insulin factory while prohibiting them from utilizing insulin for their own conditions. Do you think that would be cruel or unethical? We do.

This is why the Senate version of this bill will reflect a sensibility about mental health stigma that is missing in the House version of the bill. We are asking the Senate to build-into the program not only training for mobility service dogs but also training for psychiatric service dogs. Think about this for a minute. How many veterans with mobility impairments (i.e., amputations, etc) don't also have PTSD or some other mental impairment? Thus, it only makes sense when training service dogs for these folks that the dog be trained to assist not only with the physical disability but also with the mental disability. By incorporating psychiatric service dog training into the curriculum, one makes this a more thorough and complete program for the eventual recipients of these dogs.

In addition, we are asking the Senate to remove the prohibition on owning a service dog by the veterans with PTSD who will be training these mobility service dogs for other veterans. There is no reason why these veterans should have to refrain from accessing powerful Dog Medicine for themselves, even while learning to train a service dog for a physically disabled veteran. This means that if a veteran with PTSD wishes to train his/her own psychiatric service dog in the context of this program, s/he can do so. It's all a part of the learning process of the program which strives to offer veterans with PTSD a new vocational option. This is a win-win!

Finally, because mobility service dogs and psychiatric service dogs are trained so differently, we are asking the Senate to require that both models of training be incorporated into the training curriculum. Many in the mobility service dog training world will be upset by this provision, because the training of psychiatric service dogs must be done by the veteran who will use the dog. This is called 'professionally supported owner-training'. It contrasts from the old school method for training service dogs which includes 3rd party trainers (trainers who are not disabled and with whom the dog will not be ultimately placed). It is not recommended to train psychiatric service dogs using this 3rd party training model. Doing so actually retards the dog's training process which necessarily includes 24/7 time with its new handler so that the dog can learn to sense subtle physiologic cues in its person.

I had to speak up about this issue, because the article, although well-intended, is naive to the behind-the-scenes facts about this House Bill. The subject of service dogs and veterans is admittedly 'warm and fuzzy' but the public needs to know there are some unscrupulous actors in this picture who are doing their best to funnel a maximum amount of funding to their monopolistic enterprises. This does not serve the many thousands of veterans who need these dogs. The assistance dog industry has a financial conflict in this picture, yet, it is the industry that is behind all of this legislation we keep reading about. Ironically, the industry has committed to providing 100 service dogs of all types per year to veterans through the VA. 100 service dogs a year is a drop in the bucket. The industry isn't even TRYING to meet the genuine need that exists for these highly skilled dogs. The industry wants a sole source federal contract with the VA that will exclude all other non-industry providers of service dogs. How is this putting veterans' needs first?

Our grassroots organization is looking out after the interests of those veterans living with mental illnesses. We have been oppressed by the assistance dog industry for many years simply because we work with mentally ill persons, a deeply stigmatized population. We are all-too-familiar with industry tactics and merely want to public to be more educated about what is happening with Congress and the VA right now with regard to service dogs. The industry is attempting to construct a monopoly and deny veterans with PTSD use of psychiatric service dogs.

Unless the Senate buys into these changes that we are recommending, we cannot support passage of this legislation by virtue of the stigma the House version of the bill perpetuates. Please join us in supporting a more enlightened version of this program via the Senate. Maybe then, our warriors may be appropriately served.

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