Congress unleashes service dogs for veterans with PTSD

A study showed veterans with mental health conditions stand to benefit tremendously from canine companions

Former Rep. Steve Stivers greets Phoenix, a service dog, during a news conference in May highlighting the passage of the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act. The Senate passed the bill Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Former Rep. Steve Stivers greets Phoenix, a service dog, during a news conference in May highlighting the passage of the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act. The Senate passed the bill Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 9, 2021 at 6:00am

After nearly a decade of bureaucratic slowdowns, advocacy efforts and stalled legislation, veterans may be getting increased access to one of the more effective treatments for combat-related mental health conditions: a service dog.

On Thursday, the Senate passed on a voice vote a measure called the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act, or PAWS Act for short. The House passed the bill in May, so now it awaits President Joe Biden’s signature.

The widely supported, bipartisan legislation would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program on dog training therapy and would authorize the VA to provide service dogs to veterans with mental illnesses — rather than just mobility issues, as was previously the case.

The White House did not return a request for comment regarding if or when Biden might sign the legislation, introduced by former Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, and co-sponsored by 317 lawmakers in the House.

“It’s a big deal for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think it’ll lower the suicide rate and give these veterans their lives back,” Stivers, now the CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, told CQ Roll Call.

Legislation directing the VA to offer service dogs to veterans more widely has been in the works since 2010, when former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced a bill that directed the VA to do a three-year pilot study on the benefits and feasibility of using service dogs to treat PTSD.

But that study was plagued by organizational and reporting problems and paused for two years, after which the VA reengineered and restarted the study. The results, finally released in March of this year, were conclusive: Veterans with PTSD stand to benefit tremendously from service dogs.

In the meantime, other legislative efforts to pair veterans with service dogs stalled. The House passed the PAWS Act last Congress, but it never gained momentum in the Senate. Among the opponents was the VA, which cited the lack of scientific evidence to show that service dogs improve the mental health of veterans with PTSD.

This year, Stivers says Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., were instrumental in moving the bill forward.

“I have made it a priority since being elected to the Senate to do everything possible to combat veteran suicide, and this legislation adds another tool in the toolbox for our men and women who served,” Tillis said in a news release.

The bill’s passage comes as the situation surrounding veterans’ mental health worsens. According to a 2016 report from the VA, an average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Today, more than 1.7 million veterans receive mental health care through the VA.

One of those people is Leslie Wohlfeld.

Wohlfeld, now 57, was 17 years old when she enlisted in the military. By the time she took medical retirement, Wohlfeld had been deployed overseas during two separate wars and returned home with a host of injuries — physical and mental.

As a network administrator with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in 2003, Wohlfeld managed a network of hundreds of computers housed within Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military’s center of operations for two decades during the now-ending war in Afghanistan.

While Wohlfeld was there, Bagram was the target of rocket and mortar attacks and improvised mines. At the time, the base had not been fully cleared of the hidden explosives, she said, and servicemembers were told to never pick up anything they hadn’t dropped themselves. The reminders of the mines, sometimes in the form of children with missing limbs, could be seen on the base.

The deployment left Wohlfeld permanently disabled and suffering from PTSD. On many days, her feelings of anxiety were so severe that Wohlfeld would not leave her Brooklyn apartment — that is, until she was paired with Lizzie in 2011.

Lizzie, who died last month, was a purebred yellow Labrador and a service dog.

“Lizzie’s main mission was mobility, helping me to get around,” Wohlfeld said Friday in an interview, “but what she did to improve my quality of life, words cannot properly describe.”

Service dogs like Lizzie can sometimes help veterans with PTSD far more than standard treatment techniques, which employ a mix of therapy and medication.

“Once they feel comfortable knowing the dog is there, the veterans can be freer. It helps to calm their minds,” said Lu Picard, co-founder of ECAD, an organization that trains and pairs service dogs with people who need them.

“The dogs can wake them up from night terrors, pull them out of negative flashbacks. And they know that with the dog, they’re never alone or a burden to any other human being. That’s a big deal,” Picard said.

The dogs can also be a safeguard against the worst-case scenario for veterans with PTSD.

“If a veteran has a gun in their mouth, and has lost hope, they can look at the dog and say, ‘Well, I can’t leave the dog,’” said Cole Lyle, a Marine Corps veteran who was paired with his service dog, a German Shepherd named Kaya, after his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.

Lyle said dogs give veterans struggling with PTSD a sense of purpose that can be taken away from them when they leave the military. “And there are no negative side effects of a dog — except for maybe an accident on the floor, which is extremely rare,” he said.

Lyle, a former military legislative assistant to Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., helped craft the original version of the PAWS Act, which was introduced by former Rep. Ron DeSantis, currently the Republican governor of Florida, in 2016.

Despite the delays in passing the PAWS Act, Lyle views the progress positively.

“Any bill that passes that puts more dogs in the hands of veterans is a win for the veteran community,” he said.