Service Dog Solutions: Next Steps in Federal Support for Veterans with PTSD

By: James Jay Carafano, PhD, and Madyson Hutchinson
Previously Published in The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No 3125

Congress and the Administration both have roles to play in expanding veterans’ access to services that help heal the wounds of war, both physical and psychological. In 2015, a congressional report on military casualties estimated that approximately 140,000 of America’s veterans deployed post-9/11 suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Standard treatments include cognitive behavioral therapies and psychiatric medications that often produce negative side effects and have even been linked to an increased number of suicides among veterans. Service dogs offer an alternative to traditional treatments by acting as highly trained companions that provide both practical and emotional support to veterans suffering from PTSD. The proposed PAWS Act sets up guidelines to make service dogs an official treatment option for American veterans—an alternative that Congress should support.

The PAWS Act attempts to break the cycle of failed leadership from the VA, leveraging the accomplishments of the private sector and pressing for more relevant, research-based policies sooner rather than later.

The PAWS Act:

  • Establishes a pilot program where the VA provides grants to eligible organizations for each veteran referred to that organization for a service dog. To be considered eligible, organizations must be nonprofits that provide trained service dogs that are certified by Assistance Dogs International (ADI).  These organizations must meet the ASPMV standards for service dog programs and agree to cover all expenses in excess of the VA grant.
    Sets eligibility standards for the veterans entering the pilot program. Veterans must have been diagnosed with PTSD, been previously treated for it, and remain symptomatic. The newest version of the act includes all veterans— pre- and post-9/11.
  • Outlines parameters for procurement and training of service dogs. The partner organizations must provide canines with one-on-one training for a minimum of 30 hours over at least 90 days. The act also outlines plans for an in-house residential facility where veterans who receive service dogs must stay for at least 30 hours of additional training with their new service canine. The act also requires that the dogs pass the American Kennel Club Community Canine test and the ADI Public Access Test before being placed with a veteran.
  • Requires that service dogs be acquired from a provider that is accredited by a member organization of the ASPMV or ADI. The PAWS Act would require service dogs to be trained by accredited organizations to ensure that veterans are matched with a dog appropriate for their lifestyle and personality.
  • Requires that the VA establish metrics for measuring the effectiveness of the pilot program. “Effectiveness” would be determined with respect to the degree that the service dogs help participants live normally, lessen their symptoms, reduce their dependence on psychiatric medications, and improve their overall social functioning.
  • Requires that, at the end of the program, the Comptroller General of the U.S. submit a report to Congress on the program’s effectiveness. The Government Accountability Office is required to audit the VA’s metrics and report on the effectiveness of the program to Congress.

Next Steps
The Paws Act brings attention to an important issue. In addition to jump-starting the VA research-based
policy process, there are steps that Congress can take now to improve veteran access to service animals. Congress should:

  • Press the VA to update its service dog policy quickly. The VA’s delayed and inconclusive research studies have cost millions of taxpayer dollars with nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, veterans continue to suffer from PTSD and commit suicide. The PAWS Act outlines measures that the VA could implement to improve its policies and ensure a better quality of life for veterans suffering from PTSD.
  • Insist that the VA clearly define “emotional support” dogs as “service animals” in its pilot programs. Current ADA regulations define a service canine as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” By that definition, dogs assisting veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress in VA pilot programs are “service” animals.
  • Encourage the VA to institute nationally recognized standards for the procurement and training of service dogs used in the VA program. Private organizations like the ASPMV have already begun to produce national standards for the procurement and training of dogs. The VA should adopt similar standards that ensure the quality of dog training for veterans.
  • Take action to help prevent service dog fraud in public settings. This problem routinely presents itself in airplane travel. The Department of Transportation requires that airlines allow service animals on flights without charge to the owner. Pet owners have begun taking advantage of that regulation by passing their family pet off as a service animal.
  • Insist that the Department of Transportation reevaluate regulations that prevent airlines from discerning between pets and legally defined service animals. Current regulations prevent airlines from requiring ID cards
    for service animals or asking passengers specific questions about their disability in relation to their service animal.

There is no “one size fits all” solution for veterans combatting post-traumatic stress. However, with more than 140,000 veterans suffering from PTSD since after 9/11, it is clear that current treatment methods are limited and new avenues must be explored. The PAWS Act highlights another treatment option and outlines a program that would establish empirical research on the effectiveness of service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD.

America’s veterans deserve no less.

James Jay Carafano, PhD, is the E. W. Richardson Fellow and Vice President of, and Madyson Hutchinson is Administrative Assistant in, the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.