Congress Passes Bill to Help Vets with Mental Health Conditions Get Service Dogs

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Ken Bylo, an Army veteran, poses with his service dog, Cowboy
Ken Bylo, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, poses with his service dog, Cowboy, in 2016. Cowboy helps him find peace from PTSD, he said. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson)

A bill to connect more veterans with service dogs trained to support mental health conditions is headed to President Joe Biden's desk.

The Senate on Friday passed the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS, for Veterans Therapy Act, which requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a pilot program for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to train service dogs.

The bill also allows -- but does not require -- the VA to provide service dogs to vets with mental health conditions.

Having passed the House in May, the bill now goes to the president to become law.

"Many veterans with mobility impairments have had their lives changed -- in some cases, saved -- by service dogs," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., one of the bill's cosponsors, in a statement Friday. "Our bill would expand this treatment by launching a pilot program to make veterans with mental health issues such as depression eligible to receive service dogs."

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Under the legislation, the VA is supposed to work with organizations that train service dogs. Among the groups that supported the legislation is K9s For Warriors, a Ponte Vedra, Florida-based nonprofit that has paired nearly 700 service dogs with veterans.

Rory Diamond, the group's CEO, said the new law puts the VA on a path to covering service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

"This pilot program will prove, again, the life-changing impact a service dog can make in mitigating a veteran's symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress," Diamond said in a press release.

Currently, the VA covers veterinary costs of service dogs for veterans with physical disabilities, including blindness and mobility issues. The new law does not require the VA to do the same for service dogs trained for mental health support, but it does allow the department to do so if it chooses and has the funding.

Versions of the PAWS Act have been introduced in Congress in the past few years but have failed to become law, largely because the VA has said it was awaiting the results of a scientific study to determine whether dogs trained to support veterans with PTSD or other disorders are more effective at easing symptoms than a companion dog.

In the past, the VA also has raised concerns about the impact on a veteran handler's mental health when a support dog dies -- an inevitability given the 10- to 16-year lifespan of most dogs.

In March, however, the VA released the results of a nearly decade-old effort to determine whether trained service dogs help improve symptoms of PTSD better than a pet.

The verdict? They do. While both types of animals helped decrease PTSD symptoms in their owners, results were more significant in participants paired with a service dog.

And veterans paired with service dogs had fewer suicidal behaviors and less suicidal ideation at the 18-month point.

Service dogs trained to assist people with PTSD learn a range of tasks, such as standing in front of or behind their handler to fend off crowds or approaching people. They also may wake a person from a nightmare, "sweep" a room before their handler enters, or turn on lights.

The PAWS Act that will become law differs from a similar bill currently introduced in Congress that would require the VA to create a grant program to pay for service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

From 2005 to 2018, nearly 90,000 veterans died by suicide, according to the most recent data from the VA. Sponsors of the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act and supporters say that out-of-the-box approaches to mental health treatment, including service dogs, could help reduce veteran suicides.

"Veterans suffering from invisible wounds of war are now one step closer to being afforded the opportunity to seek this unique and scientifically proven treatment through VA," said Bill McCabe, director of Legislative Affairs at The Enlisted Association, in a press release.

Timing for the VA to stand up the pilot program has yet to be determined. A department spokesman said Monday that the VA does not comment on pending legislation.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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