Dogs Help Soldiers Combat PTSD – VA Not Impressed

Scientists around the world have confirmed that for some conditions a wagging tail might help more than a pharmaceutical. One such condition is posttraumatic stress disorder syndrome (PTSD).

There are scientific studies (though limited in number) which do support the positive affects of dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD, not to mention  literally thousands of real-life anecdotal instances.

“I couldn’t handle it any more; I was pushing away people I loved,” says Ray Galmiche, a Vietnam War vet with PTSD in Navarre, FL. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for Dazzle (a German Shepherd Dog).” He added that is not too melodramatic to say that his service dog saved his life.

A few years ago Congress mandated additional scientific study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on the impact of service dogs paired with PTSD vets. The study was to follow 230 PTSD vets and their service dogs, and to track them and their families through 2014. In June 2011, a study was finally begun.

After enrolling only fewer than two dozen dogs, the VA just announced they’ve suspended the study. What’s more the VA indicated they will no longer support service dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD (and instead only support dogs partnered with veterans with visible disabilities).

This sudden move apparently even took Congress by surprise. U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) was so affronted; he quickly held a press conference and issued a press release. Schumer replied to a request for further comment via email.  “It’s of the utmost importance that we provide our vets with every option available to treat service related ailments.  For some vets who suffer from PTSD and other mental illnesses, this means service dogs.  Especially as the wars are winding down, and more and more soldiers are returning home with mental trauma, the VA must continue to allow their doctors and mental health professionals to provide benefits to veterans who need mental health service dogs.”

Indeed never before are so many veterans being diagnosed with PTSD. According to the VA, there are about 400,000 ex-soldiers currently in treatment for PTSD, and among that population, rates of divorce, substance abuse and unemployment exceeds those in the general population. Suicide rate is off the map with 32 to 39 suicide attempts daily with about half that many succeeding.

The non-profit Paws for Purple Hearts is one of several groups which provides certified therapy dogs for PTSD patients. The organization began in 2008 with PTSD patient veterans helping to train dogs for veterans with physical disabilities. “We immediately learned that the dogs benefited the ‘trainers’ with PTSD as much the disabled veterans they were eventually paired with,” says Robert Porter, CEO/executive director.

In each and every instance Porter says medical professionals at their partner VA Palo Alto, CA Health Care System witnessed dramatic changes among PTSD veterans paired with dogs, which includes fewer medications (sometimes all together eliminating them), and an improved quality of life, including fewer flashbacks and nightmares.

“One hallmark of PTSD is avoidance (of going outdoors and socializing with others),” says Porter. “That’s hard to do with a 60 lb. dog who just wants to go out and play.”

Guardian Angels Medical Services of Williston, FL was one of the three groups involved in the VA study (the other two were New Horizons Service Dogs of Orange City, FL and Freedom Service Dogs of Englewood, CO).

According to printed reports, the explanation for halting the VA study were concerns of dogs biting children; dirty, cramped living conditions that caused animals to suffer illnesses such as worms and diarrhea; and faulty record-keeping.

That “explanation” leaves Carol Borden, executive director and founder of Guardian Angels perplexed. The majority of the dogs enrolled in the limited study, she says, were from her organization, and there were no biting incidents. Providing dozens of service dogs paired with veterans over the years, Borden says she’s never received a single complaint relating to a dog’s temperament. As for veterinary care, it was paid for as a part of the study.

Borden says that in her organization’s history, in each and every instance, the veteran (with PTSD) has benefited by having a dog. Many go from 12 or more meds daily to half that to even no meds at all. We’ve not experienced a single suicide attempt as far as we know,” Borden pauses and takes a breath “I have letters from wives thanking us because the (personality of their) husband has returned, and it all happens because of a dog who provides unconditional love.”

Instead of the veterans depending on government subsidies, many PTSD vets with dogs find jobs.

“It (the VA’s directive) doesn’t make sense,” she says. She even intimated that since vets paired with dogs require fewer meds, pharmaceutical companies may have lobbied for the VA’s new position. Another possibility is that the VA was told to cut budget, period. And even if the decision will cost taxpayers more dollars, at least their department isn’t paying.

“I understand the need for further published scientific evidence, but the overwhelming anecdotal personal stories of veterans who say they’ve gotten their lives back as a result of a service dog should matter,” says Amy McCullough, national director of animal assisted therapy of the Washington D.C. based American Humane Association. “With all the returning veterans with PTSD, we don’t have the luxury to say ‘let’s think it over’ when we could be saving lives.”

(Next week: More with Ray Galmiche, Vietnam War Veteran diagnosed with PTSD, and how his service dog works daily. “I know my dog has my back,” he says. “I never thought a dog could do this. My life has changed.”)         

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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is www.stevedale.tv


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