Dogs are man’s best friend, and our connection to them can be traced back for thousands of years. For thousands of years, dogs have been beside humans and have assisted them with a large variety of tasks. For those with disabilities, this connection is even greater. Guide dogs, service dogs, and other companion dogs, have the ability to give back in ways that we are only just taking advantage of. For members of the armed forces, and Veterans, these animals provide a link back to normalcy.
Guide dogs for the blind became a world-wide service following WWI when European Veterans, who had lost their sight during the war, required help. Since then, guide and service dogs have expanded to assist individuals coping with a wide variety of disabilities such as: blindness, hearing loss, seizures, mobility difficulties (amputees, paralyzed, etc), and perhaps the most recent, psychiatric issues such as PTSD. The dogs may be trained to assess situations, bring objects or medications, alert the person to situations, or guide them through life. Fortunately, the American with Disability Act protects the individual’s rights to utilize service dogs within their everyday life.
Currently, although many Veterans may be eligible to receive service dogs through the VA, PTSD is not yet considered a reimbursable diagnosis for service animals. Although it is troubling to not include this as part of the program, the rational is because to be considered a service dog, the animal must perform a number of tasks or other services other than comfort, which is generally not considered part of the PTSD diagnosis. As better understandings of PTSD is emerging, there has been a shift in regard to service animals for disorder such as; PTSD, anxiety, combat stress, etc. and hopefully the policy will reflect this new findings.
The guide dog foundations have also had to adapt, as the skills to train a dog to react to symptoms of mental health can be quite different than a physical disability. So far, these service dogs are shown to work wonderfully, and even connect in ways they were not originally trained for to respond to their handler’s emergencies. Allen & Bascovich(1996) demonstrated positive impacts of the use of service dogs for ambulatory disabilities. Many of the benefits involved the psychological benefits of service animals on a person’s mood, symptomology, social self esteem, and perhaps most importantly for the cross-over to Veterans, community integration.
Some of the logistical problems is the time it takes for the breeding and training of service dogs, as well as the cost for these services and ongoing care. For Veterans, this could be an alarming concern, as the U.S. can expect a high level of returning Veterans in upcoming years, due to what will be the 13th year of war. As with every war, there are unique injuries that are often associated with the time period. As the history of guide dogs explores, blindness and amputees from WWI led to the development of this program. Today, TBI (traumatic brain injuries), and amputees will call for service animals geared towards problem specific needs that go along with these injuries. Although far from new, PTSD may likely be seen in an increased number of returning Veterans, who have undergone at times, multiple, high-stress deployments over many years. The rise in symptoms associated with this disorder, compounded by other medical concerns, will make policies surrounding service dogs and their reimbursement a necessity. We must continue to advocate for the needs of our nation’s Veterans, and Veterans around the globe. Now, that would be a treat.
By: Courtney Kidd, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer
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