A new law will allow more vets with PTSD to have specially trained assistance dogs:
StÃ©phanie O’Neill for KHN
It’s supper time in Whittier, Calif., Home of Air Force veteran Danyelle Clark-Gutierrez. Lisa, a three-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, eagerly awaits a bowl of canned kibble and dog food.
Lisa almost dances in excitement, her fingernails clicking on the kitchen floor. Right now, she looks more like a rambunctious puppy than an expensive, highly trained service animal. But that’s exactly what Lisa is, and now she helps Clark-Gutierrez manage her daily PTSD symptoms.
âHaving it now is like I can go anywhere,â says Clark-Gutierrez. “And yes, if someone came towards me, I would have a warning; I could run.”
A growing body of research on PTSD and service animals has paved the way for President Joe Biden to enact the Puppies Assisting Injured Servicemen Act (PAWS) for veterans therapy. The law, enacted in August, requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to open its service dog referral program for veterans with PTSD and to launch a five-year pilot program in which veterans with PTSD help to train assistance dogs for other veterans.
Clark-Gutierrez, 33, is among the 1 in 4 female veterinarians who reported experiencing military sexual trauma (SST) while serving in the U.S. military.
MSD, combat violence, and brain damage are among the experiences that put military personnel at greater risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Symptoms include flashbacks to the traumatic event, severe anxiety, nightmares, and hypervigilance. Psychologists note that such symptoms are in fact a normal reaction to experiencing or witnessing such violence. A diagnosis of PTSD occurs when symptoms worsen or persist for months or years.
A search for help leads to Lisa
This is what happened to Clark-Gutierrez after continued sexual harassment by another aviator that escalated into a physical attack about a decade ago. The lawyer and mother of three says she has always needed her husband by her side to feel safe leaving home. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) prescribed a cascade of drugs to her after she diagnosed her with PTSD. At one point, Clark-Gutierrez says, he was prescribed more than a dozen pills a day.
âI had meds, then I had meds for the two or three side effects of each medication,â she says. “And every time they gave me a new medicine, they had to give me three more. I couldn’t do it anymore, I was getting so tired, so we started looking for other therapies.”
And that’s how she got her service dog, Lisa. Her husband, also an Air Force veteran, founded the nonprofit group, K9 for warriors, who rescues dogs – many at slaughterhouse shelters – and turns them into service animals for veterans with PTSD. Lisa is one of some 700 dogs the group has matched with veterans facing lingering symptoms from traumatic experiences in the past.
âNow, with Lisa, we cycle, we go down to the park; we’re going to Home Depot, âsays Clark-Gutierrez. “I’m going to go shopping – normal things that I do that I hadn’t been able to do before Lisa.”
Research Shows Service Dogs Relieve Symptoms of PTSD
This comes as no surprise to Maggie O’Haire, associate professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University. His current research suggests that while service dogs are not necessarily a cure for PTSD, they do relieve symptoms. His published studies include one showing that veterans who partner with these dogs experience less anger and anxiety and sleep better than those who don’t. Another suggests that service dogs improve cortisol levels in traumatized veterans.
âWe actually saw patterns of this stress hormone that were more similar to healthy adults who don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder,â says O’Haire.
A Congress-commissioned VA study, released earlier this year on the impact of service dogs on veterans with PTSD, suggests that those who have partnered with these animals have fewer suicidal thoughts and improved outcomes. symptoms more prominent than those who do not.
Until now, the federal dog referral program – which relies on nonprofit assistance dog organizations to pay for these dogs and provide them free to veterans – has required the veteran to have a problem. of physical mobility, such as a lost limb, paralysis or blindness, in order to participate. People with PTSD but no physical disabilities, like Clark-Gutierrez, were the only ones to qualify and organize a service dog.
Training for PTSD assistance dogs costs approximately $ 25,000
The new effort created by federal law will be offered in five VA medical centers nationwide, in partnership with accredited assistance dog training organizations – to give veterans with PTSD the opportunity to train dogs to mental health assistance for their fellow veterans. It is modeled on an existing program at Palo Alto, California VA.
“This bill is really about on-the-job therapy training, or ‘train the trainer’,” said Adam Webb, spokesperson for Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), who introduced the legislation. “We don’t anticipate that VA will begin prescribing PTSD assistance dogs, but the data we’re generating from this pilot program will likely be helpful in justifying this case in the future.”
The Congressional Budget Office expects the federal pilot program to cost the VA about $ 19 million. The law does not require the VA to pay for dogs. Instead, the agency will partner with accredited service dog organizations that use private funds to cover the costs of adopting, training, and pairing dogs with veterans.
Still, the law marks a welcome turnaround in VA politics, says K9 for warriors CEO Rory Diamond.
âOver the past decade, the VA has basically told us that they don’t recognize service dogs as helping a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder,â Diamond said.
For vets with PTSD, a service dog is like a lifelong “fight buddy”
Service dogs PTSD are often confused with emotional support dogs, Diamond says. The latter offer support and are not trained in a specific task to deal with a disability. PTSD assistance dogs, on the other hand, cost around $ 25,000 to adopt and train a dog to understand dozens of general commands to help veterans with PTSD and then further train them to the needs of the particular veteran. , he said.
“So ‘cover’ for example,” said Diamond, “The dog will sit next to the Warrior, look behind him and alert him if anyone is coming in from behind. Of anything in front of them.”
Army Master Sgt David Crenshaw of New Jersey said his service dog Doc, a German shorthair pointer and Labrador mix, was life changing.
âWe teach in the military to have a combat buddy. Your combat buddy is that person you can call any time of the day or night to get you out of every sticky situation,â says Crenshaw. “And these service animals act as a battle companion.”
How true this became evident to Crenshaw a few months ago. Due to the lingering hypervigilance that is part of his combat-induced PTSD, Crenshaw has always avoided large gatherings. But this summer, Doc helped him successfully navigate large crowds at Disney World – a significant first for Crenshaw and his family.
âI wasn’t upset. I wasn’t anxious. I wasn’t upset,â says Crenshaw, 39. “It was really, really amazing and so much so that I didn’t even have to stop to think about it in the moment. It happened naturally.”
PTSD rates vary among veterans of different wars
Crenshaw says that because of Doc, he no longer takes any of his PTSD medications and he no longer uses alcohol to self-medicate. Clark-Gutierrez says Lisa also helped her quit long-relying on alcohol and quit taking VA-prescribed medications for panic attacks, nightmares, and periods of dissociation.
âLisa is watching me all the time,â says Clark-Gutierrez. “If she sees that I’m somehow beside myself, she (does) whatever she needs to do to bring me back. I can’t even express how useful that is.”
“We actually save money on the AV over time, âsays Diamond. âOur Warriors are much less likely to be on expensive prescription drugs, much less likely to use other VA services, and much more likely to go to school or go to work. So it’s a victory, a victory, a victory at all levels.“
The number of veterans with PTSD varies depending on the war, up to 20% of those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from this disease in any given year, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
This story was produced as part of NPR’s health reporting partnership with KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues.