The Fight for Service Dogs for Veterans With PTSD

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder swear that service dogs lead to remarkable improvements, but research has yet to support their widespread use. Meanwhile a Tampa VA hospital just suspended the major study on the question, over concerns for the health of the dogs

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When it comes to treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, no intervention regularly receives as glowing reviews as service dogs. The use of service dogs to treat PTSD is new, though, and many of the findings at this point are anecdotal. Many veterans had eagerly hoped a pioneering study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs would buttress their personal experiences with science that could support implementing widespread therapeutic use.

By pairing veterans with a service dog and tracking their condition over three years, the study could demonstrate to service dog providers around the country how to effectively train for PTSD patients, and might provide convincing evidence for the VA system to create a benefit for the treatment.

Last week, however, the agency confirmed that it had suspended the study at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, FL, for the second time this year after alleging that a vendor violated its contract and endangered the health of its dogs. The latest setback left about 100 veterans on the study's waiting list without any hope that they'd receive a dog in the near future. It also raised the thorny question of how to conduct research in a field that is new, but where the need is urgent.

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Traditionally used for blind, deaf, or physically disabled patients, service dogs have only recently been trained to perform tasks that can improve PTSD symptoms, like wake a veteran from a nightmare or create a buffer in large crowds or public places.

Patients often experience dramatic improvement, say service dog experts. They feel renewed confidence in social situations, decrease medication use, and are less likely to startle. Some veterans say it's the only treatment that ever worked so well.

Congress, which required the study in 2009, permitted the VA to match as many as 200 veterans with service dogs. Mark Ballesteros, a spokesperson for the VA, said in a statement to The Atlantic that the study had so far paired 17 dogs with veterans and that the agency is "developing a new plan to carry out this important research." It also notified the Office of Inspector General about the contract violations for further investigation.

Carol Borden, executive director of the vendor under investigation -- Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, Inc., in Williston, FL, -- vehemently denied the VA's allegations.

"We were doing this work before and we will continue to do this work because we love our veterans and are passionate about our success and what we are able to give people through our dogs," Borden told me. "We will continue to carry on with anyone who qualifies that wishes to continue with our program."

In a document related to the investigation, officials said they expected the study to resume in 10 months after changes have been made to its design.

In particular, the VA plans to conduct a nationwide search for the best dogs, expanding the number of providers and contracting instead with trainers to pair veterans with an animal. Doing so, the agency hopes, will eliminate a problematic conflict of interest wherein the service dog provider may perceive a financial incentive to pair dogs regardless of whether or not they have received necessary training or would perform well.

Such are the hard lessons of designing a study that is the first of its kind for the VA. But the research has been troubled from the start. It began with three service dog providers, two of which stopped participating earlier this year; it was initially suspended from January to June after a dog bit a young girl. Guardian Angels had no reported incidents when the study resumed.

Presented by

Rebecca Ruiz

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter based in Oakland. She has written for NBC NewsForbes, and The American Prospect.

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