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2012-10-11

-- My View -- VA drops study, funding for therapy dogs for vets with PTSD

By John Woestendiek www.ohmidog.com

The Department of Veterans Affairs has dropped its support of pairing service dogs with veterans diagnosed with PTSD - even before completing a three-year study mandated by Congress.

After enrolling fewer than two dozen dogs in the study, which was going to track 230 dogs paired with vets with PTSD, the VA has announced that the study has been suspended, and that service dogs will only be paired with veterans with visible disabilities.

The new policy went into effect Friday, Oct. 5.

For the 400,000 veterans diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder, that means dogs - despite all the positive effects that have been reported - would no longer be part of their treatment and recovery.

Among those blasting the decision is the American Humane Association.

Just days before its second annual celebration of hero dogs, the organization took time to put together a petition, calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse the new policy.

"Our focus on animal-assisted therapy dates back to 1945 when we promoted therapy dogs as a means to help World War II veterans recover from the effects of war," the AHA said. "We know from years of experience that the human-animal bond is a source of powerful healing, whether they are children suffering from cancer or military men and women who have suffered the stress of battle.

"Service dogs, in particular, are an amazing, positive resource for assisting our nation's best and bravest though their physical pain and mental anguish. We call on the VA and the United States Congress to stand up for our veterans..."
Specifically, the new VA policy ends the program that reimbursed veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for their use of service dogs while in recovery.

"It's of the utmost importance that we provide our vets with every option available to treat service related ailments," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), who was also shocked to learn of the new policy.

"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," he said.

Congress mandated that additional scientific study be conducted on the impact of service dogs paired with PTSD vets several years ago. But apparently that study never got off the ground - at least not as ambitiously as planned.

Launched in June 2011, the study planned to follow 230 PTSD vets and their service dogs, tracking them and their families through 2014. Only about a tenth of that number were registered for the study, though.

The study was halted, according to reports, because of concerns about dogs biting children, dirty and cramped living conditions, and faulty record-keeping.

According to the VA, there are about 400,000 veterans currently in treatment for PTSD, and that group has higher than normal rates of divorce, substance abuse, unemployment and suicide. There are 32 to 39 suicide attempts daily among vets with PTSD, about half of which result in death, according to a column by the Chicago Tribune's Steve Dale.

Dale's column looks at the benefits of programs such as those provided by Paws for Purple Hearts - an improved quality of life, fewer flashbacks and nightmares. Vets paired with dogs are said to be more likely to find jobs; less likely to become recluses.

"One hallmark of PTSD is avoidance (of going outdoors and socializing with others)," says Robert Porter, executive director of Paws for Purple Hearts. "That's hard to do with a 60-pound dog who just wants to go out and play."

The study was a chance to prove, beyond the anecdotal, just how much therapy dogs could help vets with PTSD. But, for reasons that make little sense, both the study and the concept were canned.

Most of the dogs in the study were from Guardian Angel Medical Services of Williston, Florida, and its founder and director, Carol Borden, says there were no biting incidents reported.

Borden says that in the organization's history, veterans with PTSD nearly always benefit from having a dog. Some patients have been able to cut their medication in half, or stop taking it altogether, she said.

That has raised questions among some about whether pharmaceutical companies lobbied for the new VA policy. That's conjecture, of course - conjecture being something that tends to occur when no logical explanation is given.

The VA owes vets, not to mention Congress, an explanation.

And we all owe veterans afflicted with PSTD a chance to get past it, or at least cope with it. Ruling out dogs and dropping the study is an oath broken, a promising avenue bypassed, and a slap in the face to veterans.

"We've not experienced a single suicide attempt as far as we know," Borden said of vets paired with dogs under the Guardian Angels program. "I have letters from wives thanking us because the husband has returned, and it all happens because of a dog who provides unconditional love."