The VA is looking for veterans with PTSD and other mental health issues to participate in a service dog pilot program.
VA already helps many qualified veterans work with outside agencies to help obtain service dogs. These veterans are diagnosed as having visual, hearing or substantial physical mobility impairments that can be helped with the assistance of a guide dog or service dog. This pilot program adds chronic mental health issues as potential factors that may limit a veteran's mobility.
Federal regulations only allow the VA to recommend service dogs to veterans with hearing or sight loss, or those who have mobility issues - trouble getting around. Previously, the VA interpreted the definition of "mobility issues" to physical conditions that limited a veteran's mobility. The VA is now expanding their interpretation of this rule by saying that veterans suffering from severe PTSD or other mental health issues often are prevented from leaving their home or interacting with the general public as as result of their mental health issues. Therefore a veteran's mobility can also be limited by mental health conditions.
Even though this program adds chronic mental health impairment as a potential issue that could limit a veteran's mobility, the VA still must determine if the service dog can assist a veteran by enhancing their mental health and mobility. The VA is hoping that a service dog can help set a veteran on the path to independent living.
The pilot seeks to provide service dogs to 100 veterans with mental health issues, so far the VA has only approved 11 veterans for the program. There are 57 applications under review.
The VA is also involved with a Congressionally ordered long-term study where they actually provide service dogs for veterans with post traumatic stress. It's tracking more than 200 veteran and service dog teams, but it will take years to collect the data collection and analyze it.
VA Secretary David Shulkin said, "I've seen the impact that these dogs can have on veterans and so I'm a believer. I don't want to wait until the research is there. If there's something that can help our veterans, we want to be pursuing it,"
The VA doesn't breed or provide dogs—but relies on outside organizations, mostly non-profits, to raise and train them, and provide dogs to qualified veterans. The VA does provide veterinary care and equipment to dogs that come from accredited agencies, however they don't pay for boarding, grooming, food, or any other routine expense associated with owning a dog.
Service dogs are distinguished from pets and comfort animals because they are specially trained to perform tasks or work for a specific individual with a disability who cannot perform the task or accomplish the work independently. To be eligible for the veterinary health benefit, the service dog must be trained by an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International in accordance with VA regulations.
Additional information about VA’s service dog program can be found at http://www.prosthetics.va.gov/ServiceAndGuideDogs.asp
Veterans with post-traumatic stress, depression or anxiety can apply to be part of this pilot project if they receive care from the VA. Interested veterans should start by talking to their treatment team and asking to be considered for a service dog under this program.