Late Breaking News
Roadblocks in the Research
- Categorized in: December 2012, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), News, Rehabilitation, TBI, Trauma
The language of the rule makes it clear that VA is willing to reconsider its regulations once research has been completed demonstrating a positive clinical outcome from use of service dogs for mental health issues. The department has been working to bolster that research base but has hit numerous roadblocks in recent months.
The one VA study examining service dogs and PTSD located at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, FL, was put on hold in September following allegations of poor animal treatment by one of the companies providing dogs for the study.
Approved in 2009, the study was slated to provide as many as 200 veterans with service animals trained to assist them with symptoms of PTSD. The study had placed 17 animals prior to being suspended. The study was also temporarily suspended for several months this past spring after a young girl was bitten by one of the service dogs. The study was scheduled to end in 2014.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D- NY) was one of the most vocal advocates for VA beginning its research into PTSD and service dogs several years ago. After VA announced its new regulations in September, he and several other legislators called on VA to throw out the new policy.
If VA waits until 2014 before reconsidering, an unknown number of veterans will suffer while the science catches up to the anecdotal evidence, Schumer said, adding in a statement, “Sadly, the horrors of war mean that many veterans come home with PTSD and other mental and emotional ailments. That’s why we owe it to these vets to provide them with every recovery option possible, including service dogs, prescribed by a doctor, to help them heal. Man’s best friend can be a vet’s best friend, and that’s why, as the wars are winding down and with the ranks of those suffering mental and emotional trauma remaining skyhigh, the VA should not deny benefits to veterans that will help them to access service dogs.
“With the ranks of those suffering mental and emotional trauma remaining sky-high, the VA should not deny benefits to veterans that will help them to access service dogs.”
Avenues Outside VA
VA is not the only avenue for veterans suffering from PTSD to acquire a service dog, however. Several nonprofit agencies have formed in recent years to fund the training of animals and pairing them up with veterans.
One of these, the New Mexico-based Paws and Stripes, was founded by Lindsey Stanek and her husband Jim, who served three tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne before being medically retired in 2008. Suffering from injuries that included TBI and chronic PTSD, he came into contact with therapy dogs while a patient at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and said he found great comfort in their presence.
After being discharged, the couple tried to find someone to train their rescue dog, Sarge, to assist Jim Stanek with mobility issues, as well as symptoms from PTSD and TBI. When they discovered how expensive the process can be — $10,000 to $30,000 to cover the many hours of extensive animal training — they began the process of creating Paws and Stripes.
The organization does not simply provide veterans with a pretrained animal. Instead, veterans entering the program choose their own dogs — either one they already own or one obtained from a shelter — and help train the animal themselves. Over a six-month course, trainers work with the veterans on a weekly basis in a group or in private classes. The goal is not only to train the animal but also to forge a bond between animal and owner that will create a more therapeutic relationship.
Since its creation in 2010, Paws and Stripes has had no want of veterans in need. “We have never had to push any sort of advertising for veterans,” explained Lindsey. “Word of mouth and any media we received have flooded our enrollment request account.”
As of October, the program, currently located only in New Mexico, has a waiting list of 700. They only accept requests from veterans, and only those who have incurred PTSD or TBI.
While they have had VA staffers refer veterans to the program, VA as an entity has never provided Paws and Stripes any assistance.
Asked about VA’s recent decision to no longer cover costs of PTSD service dogs and whether she had any doubt about the dogs’ efficacy, Lindsey said, “Service dogs may not be the best fit for every veteran diagnosed with PTSD or TBI. But it is clear from our work so far that service dogs provide a tremendous benefit for veterans that complete our program.”