If you have ever petted a dog, ridden a horse, or had a purring cat asleep on your lap, you know the tremendous sense of well-being that accompanies such interactions. You also know what good social catalysts animals can be — try walking a dog around the block without someone wanting to stop and say hello and give her a pat.
To no one's surprise, we are finding that animals work wonders when they are paired with wounded warriors. We have long known the benefits of dogs who help individuals with physical disabilities. But we are now seeing the transformative effects specially trained dogs can have on members of the military with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), or other mental health issues arising from their military experiences. It is also the case that the benefits of these pairings are not a one-way street. There is a strong mutual bond of affection and trust between the military members and their canine partners, and many groups that train them rely on dogs rescued from shelters, thus giving both human and animal a new lease on life.
The need for such dogs is growing and the expense associated with their care and training is substantial. Introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), H.R. 2847, the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act of 2013, directs the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to establish a program to award competitive grants to organizations that train and place service dogs with members of the military and veterans with certain physical and mental health needs, including PTSD. Among other things, the application for a grant must state "the commitment of the organization to humane standards for the animals." This legislation responds to the growing demand for such service dogs amidst mounting evidence of the tremendous benefits — whether increased mobility and independence or improved social interactions, less panic, and reduced stress — experienced by service members who have been partnered with them.
If you need more evidence in support of the beneficial bond that can develop between war veterans and their service dogs, watch episode one of the PBS documentary Shelter Me (now available on Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, etc.). The program looks at how shelter pets are helping returning war veterans cope with PTSD. One of the veterans says knowing that his dog has had troubles in her past just like he has makes their relationship even stronger. They are true partners in making better lives for each other.
Please contact your U.S. representative and ask that he/she cosponsor H.R. 2847 so that legitimate service dog training programs committed to humane standards will be better able to meet the needs of the many service members and veterans who can benefit from these amazing canine partnerships.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Portions reprinted with permission of the Animal Welfare Institute