Congress Passes Bill to Help Vets with Mental Health Conditions Get Service Dogs

A bill to link more veterans with service dogs trained to support mental illness is passed to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The Senate on Friday passed the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for the Veterans Therapy Act, which requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a pilot program for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to train service dogs.

The draft law also allows the VA – but not required – to provide service dogs to veterinarians with mental illnesses.

After the House of Representatives passed the bill in May, the bill now goes to the President to become law.

“Many mobility-impaired veterans have changed their lives – in some cases, saved them – through service dogs,” said Senator Kevin Cramer, RN.D., one of the law’s co-sponsors, in a statement Friday. “Our bill would expand this treatment by launching a pilot program to challenge veterans with mental health problems such as depression for accepting service dogs.”

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According to the law, the VA should work with organizations that train service dogs. Groups that supported the legislation include K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit based in Ponte Vedra, Florida that has paired nearly 700 service dogs with veterans.

Rory Diamond, the group’s CEO, said the new law will put the VA in a position to cover service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

“This pilot program will again demonstrate the life-changing effects a service dog can have in relieving a veteran’s symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress,” Diamond said in a press release.

Currently, the VA pays veterinary expenses for service dogs for veterans with physical disabilities, including blindness and mobility issues. The new law doesn’t require the VA to do the same for service dogs trained in mental health support, but it does allow the department to do so if it wishes and has the funding.

Versions of the PAWS bill have been introduced in Congress in recent years but have not made it into law, largely because the VA has stated that it is awaiting the results of a scientific study to determine whether dogs are trained to be veterans with PTSD or otherwise Aiding disorders are more effective at relieving symptoms than a service dog.

In the past, the VA has also raised concerns about the mental health impact of an experienced dog handler if a service dog dies – an inevitability given the 10 to 16 year lifespan of most dogs.

In March, however, the VA released the results of a nearly ten-year-old effort to see if trained service dogs help improve symptoms of PTSD better than a pet.

The judgment? Do it. While both species helped reduce PTSD symptoms in their owners, the results were more significant in participants with a companion dog.

And veterans who were mated with service dogs had less suicidal behavior and fewer thoughts of suicide after 18 months.

Assistance dogs trained to help people with PTSD learn a number of tasks, such as standing in front of or behind their handler to ward off crowds or fend off approaching people. You can also wake a person out of a nightmare, “sweep” a room before their caregiver enters, or turn on the lights.

The PAWS Act, which will become law, is different from a similar law currently being proposed in Congress that would require the VA to establish a service dog payment grant program for veterans with PTSD.

From 2005 to 2018, nearly 90,000 veterans died from suicide, according to the latest VA data. PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act sponsors and supporters say out-of-the-box approaches to mental health management, including service dogs, could help reduce veteran suicides.

“Veterans suffering from invisible war wounds are now one step closer to receiving this unique and scientifically proven treatment from VA,” said Bill McCabe, director of Legislative Affairs for The Enlisted Association, in a press release.

The time for the VA to get up for the pilot program has yet to be determined. A department spokesman said Monday that the VA would not comment on pending laws.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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