PAWS is a reality. With bipartisan support in Congress, the PAWS bill was written, passed — and last week signed into law. PAWS stands for Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy. The law now requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a five-year program to provide service dogs and training to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Considering the partisan sniping in Congress on most issues, this is a major victory for veterans and their families

Most of us know someone with PTSD. For me, it is buddies from high school who “survived” Vietnam. Co-workers who served in the Gulf War. And family members who served in Afghanistan & Iraq.

They walk around with a heightened sense of awareness. Relaxation doesn’t come easily. Mood swings and nightmares are the wounds they carry.

Ranking of PTSD in Service Members

The US Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports the following incidences of PTSD in service members: 

  • 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF).
  • 12 out of every 100 veterans in Gulf War (Desert Storm).
  • 30 out of every 100 Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

The VA adds that suicide risk is higher in persons with PTSD.

From 2005 to 2018, nearly 90,000 veterans died by suicide.

Distressing trauma memories, anger, poor control of impulses, and guilt related to combat are prime factors.

But, within a report released last year by the VA, there is also hope. And that hope is with service dogs. Participants in the study were assigned service dogs specifically trained for PTSD. They had fewer suicidal behaviors within the first 18 months as compared to people with emotional support animals.

Emotional Support Animal vs. a Psychiatric Service Animal 

There is a difference between an emotional support animal (ESA) and a psychiatric service animal (PSA). On the surface, all you see are veterans with dogs by their sides. But what the service dogs are trained to do makes all the difference.

An ESA doesn’t perform any specific tasks. It is there to offer emotional support to owners:

  • Accompanies its handler on errands or appointments that may cause significant anxiety or fear.
  • Helps someone with social phobia feel comfortable leaving home.
  • Provides love and affection during a panic attack or episode.

 A service dog is, and I am taking this directly from the Service Dog Registration of America website:  

“A psychiatric service animal (PSA) is any assistance animal that may be trained and used by an individual suffering from a psychiatric disability to help them in their daily life. These service dogs receive intricate, individualized training tailored to the specific needs of their handler. One person’s PSA would not be able to effectively assist another person without further intense training.”

Examples of the duties of a service dog include:

  • Turning on lights or performing room searches to avoid triggering surprises for a handler with PTSD. 
  • Waking the handler up when necessary if the medication causes them to sleep through alarms. 
  • Interrupting self-mutilation, skin picking, or hair pulling in individuals with OCD. 

Eligibility in the PAWS project

Are you a veteran struggling with PTSD? A service dog may be of help. You are eligible to benefit from the PAWS law when enrolled in the VA Healthcare System! But you need to obtain a recommendation from a qualified mental health care provider or clinical team. Contact your local VA office for more details.

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