Do Service Dogs Help Treat PTSD? V.A. Still Doesn’t Know

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The V.A. is currently conducting research into the effectiveness of service dogs, but the process has been slow. Research started in 2011 was supposed to wrap up in 2015 but has repeatedly been stalled by problems with the study’s design and execution. In May, the V.A. said the findings of the study, which has cost $16 million to date, would be released to the public in 2020.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are growing impatient with what they perceive as a lack of initiative at a time when there is a growing mental-health crisis in America’s veterans community. In June, Representative John Rutherford, a Florida Republican, reintroduced the PAWS Act, to establish a $10 million grant program through the V.A., which would give qualified nonprofit organizations up to $25,000 for each veteran they pair with a service dog. The stipend would cover the canine’s training, and the training of the recipient with his or her service dog. The bill is sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, pitting lawmakers against the V.A., which is refusing to endorse any new stopgap service-dog program before its internal research is completed.

Stuck in the middle are the veterans themselves. Among those receiving disability benefits from the V.A., more than one in five suffers from PTSD. Veterans who have responded poorly to conventional treatments have had to improvise, sometimes by paying thousands of dollars up front to acquire service dogs, then covering the significant costs of feeding and caring for them. To make matters worse, veterans seeking service dogs without any support from the V.A. are forced to wade into a largely unregulated industry: Some end up with a dog that provides few benefits because it isn’t properly trained. Veterans advocates say access to a psychiatric service dog without the associated financial burden can’t come soon enough.

In January 2009, Al Franken, fresh off his winning campaign for a Senate seat, met Luis Montalván, a medically retired Army captain who had served two tours as an intelligence officer in Iraq, and his golden retriever named Tuesday. Montalván had returned home with a shattered leg, spinal damage, a brain injury and PTSD symptoms that included vivid nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and a fear of public spaces. The only therapy that eased Montalván’s symptoms was Tuesday, whom he received from a group called Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities. Tuesday sensed if Montalván’s breathing sharpened or he began to perspire, and then intervened with a nuzzle. If Tuesday noticed Montalván thrashing while asleep in bed, he would wake the former soldier from his nightmare with a series of sloppy face-licks. Tuesday was even trained to direct the Army veteran from his bed to his pill bottles each morning.