ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Stories like Jim Stanek's are common and quickly multiplying: An Iraqi war veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, he says his life was saved by a dog that gave him the confidence to do seemingly simple things, like go out to dinner and look his wife in the eye rather than watch his own back.
But the growing list of small nonprofits involved in training affordable assistance dogs for vets like Stanek has created a Wild West-type atmosphere in the service dog world, creating tension between mom-and-pop groups trying to fill what they call a crucial void and the Veterans Administration and more traditional service dog groups.
Exacerbating the situation are several recent actions by the VA, including a decision against covering the cost of service dogs for PTSD and traumatic brain injuries until a study on the scientific benefits can be completed -- a study that has itself been plagued with potential delays and problems, including issues with aggression of some of the participating dogs.
At the same time, the VA refused to loosen its requirement that service dogs it covers be trained by groups accredited by either Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation.
The actions are frustrating to people like Stanek, who was unable to obtain his own service dog through traditional channels.
"I tried like nine different times to get a service dog through organizations," he said. "The door kept closing. I didn't have the money. They can cost $10,000 to $30,000 to $60,000."
So he and his wife, Lindsey, a former veterinary clinic worker, decided to train their own rescue dog, Sarge, to be his service dog. That led to the creation of Paws and Stripes, which in nearly two years has matched almost 50 veterans with shelter dogs.
The owners select their adult dog from a group of pre-screened shelter dogs. The dogs go home immediately with the veteran, then the pair goes through six months of training so the dogs can learn to assist their owners, whether it's to help them physically or just to provide that back-watching peace of mind that many Iraqi and Afghan war veterans need to do simple things like go into a shopping mall, or sit down to dinner in a restaurant and relax, knowing strangers are behind them.
Paws and Stripes has a waiting list of 600 vets from around the country. But like a number of similar operations around the country, it is not affiliated with one of the major service dog accreditation groups, although it is working on its application to join ADI.
Because of its lack of affiliation and accreditation, Stanek said he had to fight to get his dogs approved for admittance to VA facilities. "A lot of people are trying to get away with bringing their pet with them to the hospital," said his wife, Lindsey. "That bad apple is ruining it for everyone."
Still, the wide variance in training standards among groups like Paws and Stripes is raising questions in the traditional service dog world.
Using shelter dogs, most of whose background and true temperament is unknown, is "like playing Russian Roulette," said Corey Hudson, secretary of ADI and CEO of Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Hudson notes that his group uses only dogs bred specifically for training to be guide dogs or service dogs, and still "only about 45 percent graduate."
"We want to place a dog that makes them more independent, not dependent," he said. "Accreditation is a safeguard."
Sharon Wilson, executive director of Freedom Service Dogs, which works with soldiers from the Wounded Warriors program at Fort Carson, Colo., says her organization also uses shelter dogs in part because Colorado has an abundance of labs and other good service breeds in its shelters. Her group does not place the dogs until they have been trained in house for 7 to 9 months.
"PTSD dogs have to be what I call bomb proof," she said. "You have to know how they are going to react when that pit bull walks by."
Barbara Teasdale, founder of the San Francisco-based Vets Adopt Pets, which hooks veterans up with groups that adopt shelter dogs or provide service animals, says there is a need for standards. But she notes that many of the groups working to help vets are small "labor of love operations" that can't afford accreditation fees.
And the groups are filling two needs: helping vets and giving homeless dogs a second chance, she said.
One thing they all seem to agree on, however, is that dogs do help soldiers suffering PTSD.
"For instance, we had a client who had night terrors," said Wilson. "He would wake up in the middle of the night just screaming. His dog was taught when he starts getting restless, the dog would turn the light on ... then jump in bed and push his body as close as he could. His wife said his breathing would start to mirror the dog's and he would never wake up."
Stanek compares his relationship with his dog to that of a sniper and a spotter in the military.
"Sarge is my spotter. When we go out, she lets me know what's going on. She lets me know how I am doing," he says. "On a scale of one to 10, I used to sit at about an eight or nine on a constant basis -- like wake up that way. Now I sit around at two or three. And Sarge will alert me when that level starts to rise."