While many of us are sitting on the couch deciding what series to binge on Netflix, there is likely a veteran in the midst of a mental health crisis without the support that they need.
On August 25, 2021, President Biden signed a very necessary law into effect: Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act. For several years, veterans support groups have lobbied for these seemingly forgotten heroes to get the extra support they need. It has been a long time coming, but the PAWS act is a very hopeful and necessary beginning.
It’s a sad reality for many veterans that return from active combat zones, but the truth is that they have been exposed to some awful, often life-threatening experiences. These stressful situations leave many with mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When they return home, veterans are expected to assimilate back into civilian life, and the adjustment can be challenging. PTSD is referred to as an invisible wound, and those suffering often go without much-needed support for that reason. It’s not a visible wound, and the tendency is to forget about what you cannot see. Except these veterans live and struggle with the impact of these invisible wounds in their daily lives.
In short, this new law will launch a program through the Department of Veterans Affairs that will connect veterans in need with the life-saving support of a fully trained service dog. Additionally, as Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill pointed out while speaking with NPR, “with this new law, we are addressing the high-cost barrier that prevents many from accessing these incredible dogs.” This bill makes service dogs more accessible to veterans. We are glad to see that this program is taking off. It’s a good step in the right direction. We look forward to seeing these underserved Veterans receive more appropriate, ongoing support.
Though it is commonly referred to simply as the PAWS Act or PAWS law, we are referencing bill HR 1448: Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act.
In partnership with a few select nonprofit organizations with accredited service dog programs, the Department of Veterans Affairs will be starting a pilot program to connect service dogs in training with Veterans who have PTSD.
The program will be the first of its kind to implement a program and policy regarding service dog therapy for veterans. A total of $10,000,000 has been allotted to the program, which will run for five years and is set to begin on January 1, 2022. At the end of the five years, VA will report on the program to Congress to determine if it should become a permanent offering to provide eligible veterans a more integrative approach to mental health care.
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
The nonprofit organization Fire Watch calls veteran suicide “a growing crisis.” The organization seeks to put an end to veteran suicide in Northeast Florida. The mental health statistics are staggering for active-duty military and veterans alike. The Department of Veterans Affairs states that roughly 20 veterans per day die by suicide.
Additionally, at the end of 2020, military deaths by suicide jumped an alarming 25%. Nationwide, the pressures associated with the pandemic lent to individuals feeling more stress overall. The numbers indicate that it’s time for us to pay attention to the fact that our servicemen and women need resources and support. Fire Watch cites that “solutions to prevent suicide have been inadequate at best. In particular, federal solutions have had little to no effect on the crisis on the ground” in the area that they serve. That’s proven to be largely accurate nationwide as well. There’s a real epidemic of veterans taking their lives, and it’s tragic. It has an enormous impact beyond the veterans themselves and on military families as well.
In a statement regarding the bill, Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey said, “We know service dogs are a proven life-changing and life-saving form of therapy for our veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress.”
Psychiatric service dogs are an effective treatment option for military veterans and those with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). A recent study led by Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine found that the task of disrupting episodes of anxiety ranked among the most important and most often used by Veterans. PSDs can perform many vital tasks for those who have PTSD to help them regain a sense of normalcy in their everyday lives. As a start, they may be trained to provide comfort when they feel anxious or stressed; they can alert others if someone has a panic attack.
You have likely experienced the sense of calm and comfort that comes from spending time with a dog. Even petting a dog for just a few minutes has been proven to lower stress. We can be having the worst day, and simple interactions with our pets like a lick to the face and snuggles can turn our day around.
For war veterans, service dogs are beneficial in situations of intense anxiety. Something as simple as stopping at an ATM is a good example. For someone with PTSD, a “simple stop” at the ATM can be triggering because of the thought that someone could sneak up on them. Having a service dog there to look out for them can bring the peace of mind needed to make a simple errand just that ⎯⎯⎯a part of everyday life.
In general, dogs are more aware of what’s happening in our surroundings than people are. When someone with PTSD knows they are being guarded and have a dog nearby to address any possible threats, they can relax knowing that someone else is aware and watching out for them.
There have been some exciting studies to come out of Purdue University to support the case for veterans with PTSD to have service dogs. One study compared a group of veterans with PTSD (with service dogs) to a group on the waitlist to receive one. Previous research from the University shows that the presence of a service dog can reduce clinical symptoms of PTSD and improve the quality of life of the handler. More recent studies also confirm that veterans with service dogs experience significant mental health benefits. The findings showed veterans living with a service dog to be less stressed, have less anger, less anxiety, and sleep better.
The organization K9s for Warriors, with the goal to end veteran suicide, is the nation’s largest provider of trained Service Dogs for military veterans. They have had significant success with their programs for veterans and have been at the forefront of the fight to pass the PAWS Act. An independent study of their program conducted by Flagler college shows that 92% of the veterans that graduated from their program reported a reduction in their medication after having a service dog. Similarly, 82% of graduates reported reduced suicide ideation.
One such success story comes from Army Veteran, Jodie Revils. Jodie joined the army at the age of 18. He was deployed to Iraq at the age of 20. He served as an infantryman in a division that served in several escalated combat situations. His unit would move around ahead of other units to clear routes and ensure the area was safe. They encountered ambushes and saw a lot of direct combat.
While deployed, Jodie began experiencing “false visual images” and suffered from a combat-related traumatic brain injury. The injury, along with the high-stakes environment he was immersed in, only made things worse. Jodie got out of the army and went back to civilian life. He struggled with his symptoms. He began seeing things that weren’t there, which his brain perceived as threats similar to when he was in a combat environment. He was constantly on high alert and became preoccupied with threat management, which was exhausting.
He re-enlisted in the military but struggled to keep his symptoms at bay. His job performance began to suffer as well. Jodie says he found himself “unable to function in the civilian world or in the military,” which left him feeling like he didn’t fit in anywhere. At the time, the conversation about mental health wasn’t as open. In fact, in some circles, discussing it could be career-ending. He felt he couldn’t talk about his symptoms with anyone. He began to feel like there was nothing left for him. He was angry and suicidal.
Jodie sought help and received a diagnosis of severe PTSD. Jodie found himself taking as many as 20 pills a day for his symptoms. Of his experience, Jodie says: “With PTSD, I was a prisoner to my symptoms. I was living my life like I had received a terminal diagnosis. I had so much compound trauma that I was a shell of a person for a long time. I just existed.”
“I was either highly medicated and couldn’t function or speak to anyone, or I was angry, feeling suicidal, and causing problems with everyone. Back and forth. There was no answer.”
Jodie sought out help through every program for PTSD that was available to him at the VA. He began to see his symptoms mirrored in his family – his anxiety and hypervigilance had been transferred to his wife and kids. At that point, he was desperate for help. He found himself at an inpatient program out of state that specialized in PTSD and brain injuries. While there, he experienced a panic attack, and the staff brought in a facility dog to help him focus on something else.
Seeing how well he responded to the dog, the facility recommended he seek out K9s for Warriors. Jodie didn’t think that having a service dog would help him with his medical symptoms and was skeptical initially, but he eventually applied to the program.
Through the program, Jodie received his dog Donna, and it has been a game-changer. His symptoms were previously very debilitating. Now, he can go in public, and Donna notifies him of his symptoms before he even notices them. Jodie says, “the sheer freedom she provides is life-changing.”
At one point in his journey, he was told to not seek help and that he made his symptoms up. Jodie’s goal now is to remove the stigma around PTSD and mental health. He freely shares his story to inspire and empower others to get help.
Furthermore, his story illustrates how impactful a Service Dog can be as part of the therapy for our warriors suffering from PTSD. Now that there is more recognition of the need and funding, we hope that many more like Jodie will find the life-changing freedom of life with a service dog.
To be eligible for the new program, the requirements for veterans to participate are as follows:
In conclusion, we feel that K9s for Warriors said it best, “Military service is a selfless calling that has the potential to result in life-altering, sometimes devastating outcomes. For those who have assumed that responsibility in service to us all, it’s the least the White House and we can do to ensure they’re allowed to restore their confidence and independence as they transition to life as a civilian.” We couldn’t agree more, and we’re eager to hear more stories from the veterans and families directly impacted by these measures.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
More Great Resources