It's estimated that between 11% and 30% of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Gulf War or the Vietnam War suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).1 This mental health condition may occur in those who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, leading to symptoms that are often debilitating.
People with PTSD may struggle with recurrent memories of the traumatic event, nightmares and feelings of irritability or hopelessness. The condition often causes a person to always feel on guard, have difficulty concentrating and engage in self-destructive behavior, such as speeding while driving or drinking alcohol in excess.
PTSD often causes problems with relationships along with feelings of detachment from family and friends, and a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed.2
Service dogs can prove to be invaluable for people with PTSD, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not support service dogs for veterans with mental health conditions — only for those with mobility issues. A new bill, however, could change that.
The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act
The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS, Act would direct the VA to carry out a grant program to provide service dogs for veterans with PTSD.
The VA would provide eligible veterans with a $25,000 voucher for a service dog from a service dog organization that meets national standards set by the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans (ASDPMV).3 According to K9s for Warriors, the largest provider of service dogs for disabled U.S. veterans:
"The intent of the bill is to make service dogs more accessible to all veterans wanting an alternative PTSD treatment option, to help reduce the veteran suicide rate of 20 per day and enable them to reintegrate successfully into society.
Currently, the VA does not fund service dogs or recognize the use of service dogs as a viable method to treat PTSD. Nonprofit organizations like K9s For Warriors train and supply service dogs for qualifying veterans."4
The PAWS Act was first introduced in 2017 by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, who said in a 2017 news release, "Veterans with PTSD may have left the battlefield, but they are still in a tough fight. Service dogs can provide support, peace, and joy to these Americans as they confront the invisible scars of war. Through the PAWS Act, we can bring our veterans relief by offering them hope."5
VA Study Looking Into Service Dogs for PTSD
In 2010, Congress mandated VA researchers to study whether service dogs could help veterans with PTSD. A pilot study began a year later but was was halted in 2012 due to health and training issues with some of the dogs.6
The study was launched again in 2015 but results aren't expected until 2020. In summer 2020, the results should show whether service dogs or emotional support dogs helped veterans with PTSD, while a second part of the study, slated for release in late 2020, will look into whether the type of dog affected factors such as hospital stays and medication use.7
While the results of the VA study are still pending, other research has found favorable results for service dogs in PTSD treatment. Service dogs have been found to diminish the effects of nightmares in PTSD patients, for instance. Up to 70% of those with PTSD suffer from nightmares, and the dog acts by immediately awakening the person and also providing comfort. According to the journal Sleep Review:8
"Dogs are also used to mitigate anxiety, which is often associated with insomnia, and to modify hyperarousal and hypervigilance, which in turn creates a more amenable mood state for sleep initiation, as well as a greater sense of safety in those who are uneasy in the dark and/or night and who tend to phase-reverse to dodge nighttime sleep."
How do Dogs Help Veterans With PTSD?
Part of service dogs' ability to help people with PTSD lies in providing a sense of purpose — a reason to get up and keep going. Rory Diamond of K9 for Warriors told Military.com, "People are always asking me what is it the dogs actually do. The genius of the dog, or the magic, is it gets the warrior out the front door. You have a reason to get up in the morning because the dog needs to be fed and walked."9
In more objective measures, one study found higher levels of salivary cortisol awakening response (CAR) among veterans with PTSD with a service dog, which could be indicative of better health and well-being compared to those without a service dog.10
A number of other beneficial outcomes have also been suggested, including that service dogs decrease social isolation, increase physical activity and exposure to green space and possibly even favorably alter humans' microbiomes.11
In a pilot study of 30 veterans with PTSD, those who completed a service dog training program had significant decreases in PTSD symptoms as well as fewer intra/interpersonal difficulties associated with psychological trauma.
The results were so promising that researchers noted, "Social work practitioners may want to consider referring their veteran clients with PTSD to qualified service dog programs for adjunctive support when they are having difficulty engaging with or benefiting from office-based traditional therapy approaches."12
K9s for Warriors welcomes up to 12 veterans to their headquarters every month, where they stay for three weeks, getting to know their service dog and learning how to work together.
While it costs about $27,000 to train and place a service dog, the program is free to veterans. If the PAWS Act becomes law, it could open up access further, allowing many more veterans with PTSD to benefit from having a service dog by their side.