VA: No Therapy Dogs for Vets with Mental Health Disabilities

Service dogs are a double threat of physical assistance and emotional companionship. Their increasingly popular use in helping disabled veterans both acclimate to life outside the military and learn to live with a disability has led groups like the non-profits Patriot Paws and Soldier’s Best Friend to seek and train high-quality animals for veterans in need. The main focus seems to be mainly on those with physical disabilities, but according to an NBC story from August, some veterans are also finding the service animals are surprisingly helpful with the symptoms of mental health disabilities. It should be noted that a dog trained for therapy is different from a service dog focused on physical issues. For a veteran with PTSD, for example, the dog would be trained to do things like turn on lights, navigate large crowds, and be attentive to the mood of its owner in case he or she needs to be re-oriented with some canine comfort. However, in a 67-page decision last week, the VA decided that it will pay for costs associated with a service dog only in cases of physical disability:

“Under this final rule, VA will provide to veterans with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments benefits to support the use of a service dog as part of the management of such impairments.”

In the ruling, the VA says there is insufficient research on the efficacy of mental health service dogs, or therapy dogs, to justify providing the benefit.  Some say it stinks of the “not disabled enough” mentality. Adding to outcry over the ruling, the VA has also decided that it will only provide the benefit to vets who have completed a training course with their four-legged pal through Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation. So what is covered if you and your dog qualify? The VA will pay for the cost of actually going to get your new companion and an insurance policy for medically necessary expenses (including prescriptions). Pups with pre-existing conditions won’t be excluded from this, but the other daily costs of owning a pet — food, grooming and board, among other things — will be up to you.

It seems like a mixed bag to me. On the one hand, kudos to the VA for recognizing this need and working to provide it for our veterans. On the other, the training requirement is probably going to be a very big problem for some vets, for example those who live in areas without accredited training programs. Then, it makes sense that the VA shouldn’t dish out money for a treatment not backed by clinical research, but… we’re talking about dogs! They don’t come with short or long-term health risks, and side effects may include hair on the furniture and dirt on the floor.  It seems like we could do this solid for our vets with mental health disabilities, especially if they themselves believe it will help them.

photo courtesy Marvin Kuo under Creative Commons License

4 thoughts on “VA: No Therapy Dogs for Vets with Mental Health Disabilities”

  1. My husband, Terry, and his Collie, Echo, are visiting veterans at the VA Hospital in Muskogee, OK. They are, by the way, the FIRST EVER pet therapy pair to work at this facility. Sofar, they have been working in physical therapy and visiting patients in rooms. Last week, they asked him and her to go up to the Mental Health Floor to see how it would go and how Echo would respond. It all went well. Depending on the soldier’s needs and type of disability, of course, I can’t imagine why a dog wouldn’t help them. Terry tells me that Echo seems to sense, in each patient, what’s going on, and offers her self to interact with the vet in what ever appropriate way. Although it is getting better, we don’t offer enough credit to the inate nature of a dog to want to help and be a companion to man. Ask my husband (whom Echo has helped tremendously) and ask the VA in Muskogee what they think.

  2. I’d love a dog but I don’t expect the VA to give me one. I hope to find a German Shepherd one day soon. If he/she would simply wake me up when I’m having nightmares, and trust me, you can tell, then that’d be enough.

  3. Wow, this sets another bad precedent. While I wouldn’t want the VA to hand me a dog, the real issue here is the continued ignoring of our mental health issues.

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