Bill to Provide Service Dogs for Veterans with PTSD Passes House Unanimously

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Bear, service dog, shakes the hand of a U.S. Navy veteran prior to the start of their 4 Paws 2 Freedom program graduation March 22, 2019 at Beale Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes)
Bear, service dog, shakes the hand of a U.S. Navy veteran prior to the start of their 4 Paws 2 Freedom program graduation March 22, 2019 at Beale Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes)

A decade-long effort to have the Department of Veterans Affairs provide service dogs to veterans with mental health issues passed a major hurdle with House passage Wednesday.

The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act, would have the VA create a 5-year pilot to give grants to one or more organizations to train and provide service dogs to veterans with post-traumatic stress and other post-deployment mental health issues.

While the VA has been studying the use of service dogs for mental health treatment, it currently only covers service dogs for use in mobility issues.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who has served in Iraq in the Ohio Army National Guard.

"A soldier under my command during Operation Iraqi Freedom recently told me what his service dog means to him: he was able to fly on a plane for the first time in 10 years and he took his fiancée to dinner," Stivers said in a statement when H.R. 4305 was introduced. "That is the impact this bill can have on the lives of our veterans."

Related: Bill Would Cover Cost of Service Dogs for Veterans with PTSD

Lawmakers have long been exploring different ways to combat veterans' mental health issues . Statistics show about 20 veterans die by suicide every day.

"The process of obtaining a service dog is lengthy and costly, a cost that is out of reach for many veterans," Dr. Robin Ganzert, American Humane president, said in a news release. "This is long overdue."

Congress previously mandated that VA study the use of service dogs for PTSD and other mental health problems in 2010. But the pilot was suspended twice when two service dogs bit children and some dogs experienced health issues.

The VA has since restarted the study, and the first report on whether service dogs or emotional support dogs help veterans with PTSD will be released this summer. Six months later, the second part will show if the kind of dog factored into "health economics savings" such as reduced hospital stays or reliance on medication.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which has several of its own related bills.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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