Dogs (like cats) have been part of our human history for thousands of years, the oldest evidence of the bond between human and canine was found in Israel, “a 12,000-year-old human skeleton buried with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup” (https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm). This does make one wonder, how many of us throughout the centuries have gained succor from the very same hand gesture? And that is the point – the interaction between human and dog is complex, ancient and highly beneficial to humans (to dogs too but that is not the focus of this post).
Known health benefits range from increased walking & mobility, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, increased survival rates post heart attack, lower stress responses & quicker rebounding from stress. Additional benefits are found in terms of reduced anxiety, depression, a better outlook and overall mood. These health benefits also lead to fewer doctor’s visits and less spending on health costs –one study found a savings of $11.7 billion due to people having a pooch. When one looks to specific groups of people, such as children with autism, people with chronic pain, the elderly and veterans, to name but a few groups, one finds additional health benefits unique to that population. (Sources for this paragraph: https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm, https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html, https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html, https://habri.org/pressroom/20141027, https://habri.org/pressroom/20151214, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/03/09/146583986/pet-therapy-how-animals-and-humans-heal-each-other).
With regards to the health benefits veterans receive from animals, there are studies that look at specific animal interventions (generally using horses or dogs) and there are also studies that look at the benefits a veteran gains from having a service dog as a companion animal – both categories of studies show reductions in anxiety, depression and in the symptoms of PTSD. It is important to state the official VA position is that not enough specific research has been done to warrant deeming a service dog evidence based therapy and thus an official intervention of the VA – the main reason for this is that the research has not been done, not that the research has found results which do not support the benefits of dogs for PTSD, but have hope – research is in the works (https://habri.org/pressroom/20150921, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/01/04/461529833/veterans-say-trained-dogs-help-with-ptsd-but-the-va-wont-pay, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/cope/dogs_and_ptsd.asp, https://habri.org/pressroom/20150416).
The fact that service dogs for PTSD are not an official VA therapy means that the VA does not provide service dogs to veterans for PTSD, rather outside agencies due. In order for a dog to be a service dog it must be trained to do a specific task that goes above and beyond what a pet normally does and the specific task(s) must benefit its owner and materially improve the life of its owner. Meaning that licks, jumping for joy and loving do not count; rolling over, shaking and catching a Frisbee mid-air do not count, but opening doors, finding an exit, looking around corners or checking perimeters to ensure that no one is there, that no one could be waiting in ambush does count. Currently the VA is experimenting with pushing its definition to allow the mental health issues from PTSD to qualify someone for the benefit of a service animal (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/cope/dogs_and_ptsd.asp) and in the words of VA Secretary David Shulkin, “I’ve seen the impact that these dogs can have on veterans and so I’m a believer. I don’t want to wait until the research is there. If there’s something that can help our veterans, we want to be pursuing it,” (http://www.military.com/benefits/2017/05/19/va-service-dogs-mental-health.html).
So let us pursue H.R. 2625 the “Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act of 2017” which would, “Subject to the availability of appropriations provided for such purpose, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall jointly establish a program, to be known as the ‘K–9 Service Corps Program’, to award competitive grants to nonprofit organizations to assist such organizations in the planning, designing, establishing, or operating (or any combination thereof) of programs to provide assistance dogs to covered members and veterans” (https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2625/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22HR+2625%22%5D%7D&r=1). For the sake of clarity, these grant monies would be open to any nonprofit – the use of “wounded warrior” in the title of this bill is not in relation to the Wounded Warrior Project non-profit agency. The bill is a quick read and has clear requirements for the non-profit to show that it is capable of working with service dogs as well as veterans, that the non-profit is certified by or meets the standards of the Assistance Dogs International, the International Guide Dog Federation and that the animals are humanely treated (https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2625/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22HR+2625%22%5D%7D&r=1).
This bill has 29 co-sponsors, 2 of whom are Republicans and one of whom is San Diego’s Scott Peters. Rep. Duncan Hunter is not a co-sponsor, so let us request that Mr. Hunter become one. All the support Rep. Hunter gives to the Coast Guard, his support for Veterans (to date Hunter has introduced 12 bills into this Congress, 3 have to do with the Coast Guard and 2 have to do with Veteran issues/respect for Veterans), the importance of him having served (Hunter used to end his outgoing message with the Marine’s ‘oorah’ chant), the fact that he represents a district with a high number of Veterans and the fact that he does believe government funding is appropriate in certain situations (Hunter introduced HR 1407 this Congressional term, which would give interest free loans to US mining companies for the mining of rare minerals) makes Rep. Hunter a perfect candidate for co-sponsoring this bill, which is under review in the Armed Services Committee, on which he sits.