WASHINGTON – Service dogs shed fur on Capitol Hill’s carpets Thursday, amid growing criticism of the Veterans Affairs Department’s slow pace in clearly determining the therapeutic benefit dogs have for veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dogs and trainers from Canine Companions for Independence, one of three nonprofits providing animals for the VA’s study, were invited to the Capitol to demonstrate how assistance dogs impact the lives of military service members diagnosed with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injuries.
A $12 million study, launched in 2010, authorized a pilot program pairing dogs with veterans suffering from invisible battlefield injuries. Currently, service members with PTSD or TBI are not eligible for the same benefits provided to those with physical disabilities, like sight impairment, who have service dogs. Until the VA decides that service dogs are effective in treating these types of injuries, veterans won’t have access to benefits like paid veterinary care.
“I thought we should bring them to Washington D.C. through the Military Veterans Caucus and let everybody else see what good work they’re doing and make sure that we can encourage the Veteran’s Administration to speed up their studies on how well these programs work,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.
At 21 years of age, Army veteran Stefan LeRoy lost both of his legs and was diagnosed with TBI. In 2012, while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan, LeRoy stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device as he helped a friend who had also stepped on an IED.
Growing up active and able in Santa Rosa, California, LeRoy said the incident drastically altered his perspective and confidence.
“I didn’t know what I could do. I was worried about a lot of things,” the retired Army sergeant said. “If I wanted to carry a newborn baby for my family, or I wanted to go turn off the light in the middle of the night and didn’t have my legs on, it was more of a struggle, it was more of a difficulty, it was more of an uncertainty in my mind of what I was gonna do and how I was gonna make it through.”
Two months ago, LeRoy received Knoxville, from Canine Companions for Independence. The impact the 2-and-a-half-year-old dog has had on the veteran’s quality of life has been remarkable, LeRoy said.
In addition to performing helpful tasks, like retrieving dropped objects and turning off lights after LeRoy has removed his prosthetic legs for the night, LeRoy said simply focusing on his pet’s routine has helped him get through the day.
“I’ve only had him for two months, but it’s already amazing how much he’s impacted my life and how he impacts other peoples’ lives,” he said. “It’s been awesome to have that kind of support.”
LeRoy completed the Boston Marathon for the first time on blade runners last Monday, after racing twice in a handcycle.
But he is one of only a handful of veterans who have access to service dogs targeted at treating PTSD and TBI. Obstacles and criticism have badgered the Veterans Affairs Department since the study of service dogs study began in 2010. It is still not complete.
“The VA has really dropped the ball. They were told to carry out a study in 2010, it was supposed to be done in 2013. They’re not even close to being done now,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. “And that has the effect of failing to prevent suicides that I believe would be preventable.”
The biggest challenge is staffing, said the lawmakers and dog trainers.
Four years after the VA began providing the service dogs, only about 45 of the intended 250 animals have been paired with the eligible veterans. Paul Mundell, CEO of Canine Companions for Independence acknowledged that difficulty in finding trainers was partly to blame.
Most recently, critics have questioned whether training practices themselves – what the dogs are trained to do, that is — could unintentionally reinforce the fears of veterans with PTSD and TBI. Mundell said it is for this very reason that the study needs to be accelerated, to clearly determine which training methods work best.
Research allows dog trainers, behavioral specialists, and psychologists to analyze the potential benefits or detriments of specific commands, such as the “behind” command, which trains a dog to sit behind his veteran, blocking him from approaching strangers.
“We need to do research,” Mundell said. “Does it reinforce things that we don’t want for a person who has post-traumatic stress? Or does it help them?” he added. “That’s part of what the study is designed to evaluate.”