Dogs Give Vets Faith in Society Again

Sgt. Jason Bos and Cila together again


Many veterans enjoy comfort, aid, and true bonding from their service dog. A specially-trained post-traumatic stress disorder service dog can interrupt agitation, wake a veteran from a traumatic nightmare, or perform a room search for a vet who suffers from hypervigilance.

"He's put faith back into my way of looking at society," army veteran Joe Aguirre said of his dog, who is trained to "sweep" an area for potential threats.

PTSD service dogs can also be a steady source of furry companionship, never leaving their beloved human alone with troubling thoughts.

"It's hard to imagine the level of despair of someone who suffers from PTSD," said one Boston-area Gulf War veteran. "It's exhausting, frightening, and somewhat surreal -- you've come back from active duty, but you are in an internal war."

This veteran feels his PTSD symptoms are "80 percent" managed -- but said he would have welcomed a PTSD service dog when he first returned home.

A 2014 RAND study found that 20 percent of veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts have PTSD. With 2.7 million veterans in total from those wars, that means some 540,000 vets are dealing with the disorder.

The VA does not pay for associated costs for training and obtaining a PTSD service dog. It will only pay for "evidence-based" therapies for PTSD -- such as cognitive processing.

If a veteran needs a service dog for PTSD, he or she must fill out a complex application with a registered therapy dog nonprofit, then sit back and wait (and hope) for a four-legged companion. The training of each PTSD service dog takes over a year.

"The dogs are specially bred for this work, [and are] with us for up to 18 months of highly specialized training, including nightmare and anxiety alerts," a representative of This Able Veteran, a PTSD service dog training academy in Carbondale, Illinois, told LifeZette in an email. "Veterans are brought to our facility from across the nation for three weeks for our trauma resiliency program."

Just like with several other non-profits that train and match PTSD service dogs with those who have served, cost is not a worry for the waiting vet. "We fundraise to offset all of these expenses, so there is no charge to our veterans," the This Able Veteran rep said.

The VA is now in the fourth year of a $12 million study to gauge the efficacy and costs of using dogs to help veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress. A veteran with a PTSD service dog will say, however, that the proof is in his or her ability to keep progressing in life after duty.

Some question whether the dogs are being trained to meet VA protocols that could actually reinforce PTSD fears, such as teaching the animals to "sweep" and "block" a room.

"He's put faith back into my way of looking at society," army veteran Joe Aguirre told The Associated Press of his dog Munger, who is trained to "sweep" an area for potential threats and "block" his owner from potential aggressors.

The dog is essentially searching for "anything that would be out of the ordinary. A bag. A particular weapon. People acting erratic," Aguirre told the AP. Aguirre's four tours of duty left him struggling with daily life.

The VA study has been beset by problems and criticism, the AP noted. Only 50 dogs, approximately, have been placed with veterans for the study, and some question whether the dogs are being trained to meet VA protocols that could actually reinforce PTSD fears, such as teaching them to "sweep" and "block" a room for threats.

Could this be a substitute for the taxing but necessary work that comes with a commitment to other therapies?

Meg Olmert is the chief research adviser for the Maryland-based Warrior Canine Connection. Her nonprofit has veterans train service dogs for other veterans, and advocates "softer" canine PTSD skills, such as picking up cues and providing appropriate support -- learning to wake someone up during a nightmare, or detecting when a veteran is anxious and interacting with him to calm him down.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's national security subcommittee, introduced the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act, or the "PAWS Act," to create a $10 million project that would set aside $27,000 per dog for veterans diagnosed with the most severe forms of PTSD.

Funding would come out of a Veterans Affairs budget pegged for such things as convention planning and office decor, reported the Fairmont, West Virginia The House Veterans Affairs committee is scheduled to hear the bill next week.

A federal-level decision from the VA on covering the costs of the dogs for veterans with mental disorders won't be made until at least 2018.

"Veterans cannot wait until 2018. The problem of veteran suicides is too urgent," , said during an April hearing.

Former Marine Tony Austin would no doubt agree. After returning from active duty, he was struggling with PTSD and also rescued a bull mastiff named Hadji. Then, he learned about trained service dogs that help sufferers of PTSD.

"His whole point is disruption, to break my train of yelling," one veteran said of his dog's methods.

"I learned what these dogs can do, and I learned about what they can cost and how long it can take to get one," Austin told People Magazine of the process.

Along with struggling to meet the high costs of a service dog, Austin was having trouble going through the demanding application process to obtain a service dog due to his PTSD -- and what would he do with the newly rescued Hadji?

"We were having the conversation about getting rid of him or not, and he was lying on the couch between my wife and I," Austin told People of Haji. "The next night, or two nights later, was the first night he woke me up from a nightmare."

Austin suddenly wondered if the perfect PTSD service dog was already living under his roof.

"His whole point is disruption, to break my train of yelling," Austin said of Hadji's methods. "He breaks my focus and my train of thought and my sense of structure in my head on what I am gonna say. That disruption is not a reset switch, because you can't forget what was said or how it was said, but it's that opportunity to recalibrate and add some stuff with a new approach," Austin explained.

Austin's experience convinces him of the need for PTSD service dogs for those who are hurting. He has started his own nonprofit called Dog Tags and Capes -- he and his wife provide service dogs to other vets. "Hadji is definitely ," Austin told People.