Service Dogs as a Method of Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
There has been a spotlight in recent news on the benefits that service dogs and/or emotional support dogs may provide veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While service dogs and emotional support dogs have been shown to improve symptoms in small studies and in individuals, insufficient clinical research has been done for the Department of Veterans Affairs to endorse these dogs as treatment method for PTSD.
While research on this topic is currently ongoing, the results VA needs to determine clinical effectiveness may take years. VA asserts that service dogs are NOT a substitute for evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications.
Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Dogs
Although the terms “service dog” and “emotional support dog” are often used interchangeably, the two are different and serve distinct needs. These dogs vary in purpose, and are governed by different protections and laws.
Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks that a veteran handler is unable to do alone because of a disability. These dogs are taught to work with their veteran handlers in ways to help manage their specific disability. For example, service dogs can be trained to pick things up for those who struggle to bend over, guide visually impaired individuals, or move dangerous objects out of the way when a handler is suffering from a seizure.
To become a service dog, it must go through training. These dogs are working when out in public with a veteran, and often wear a vest discouraging petting. Due to the medically necessary nature of service dogs, handlers are afforded protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These protections allow disabled individuals to bring their service dog into places where dogs are usually not allowed, such as restaurants and airplanes.
Emotional Support Dogs
An emotional support dog is a pet that helps its owner’s mental health condition by providing friendship and companionship. These are also referred to as comfort dogs or support dogs. Emotional support dogs do not require special training— house pets can serve as emotional support dogs if a mental health provider confirms the veteran’s diagnosis and deems the dog an appropriate method for emotional support.
Emotional support animals do not hold the same legal protections as service dogs. These dogs are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those who wish to access public areas where dogs would usually not be allowed must request special permission to bring their support dog there.
Does VA Provide Veterans with Service Dogs?
Service dog benefits are administered through the VHA Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service. VA does not directly provide veterans with service dogs for physical or mental health conditions. VA does, however, approve requests for service dogs on a case-by-case basis. A prescribing clinician evaluates each case for approval by taking the following into account:
- Means and ability, including family members or caregivers, to take care of the dog currently and in the future;
- Treatment outcome goals through the use of a service dog;
- Treatment outcome goals for other treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Once a decision is made, VA notifies the veteran of an approval or disapproval. If approved, VA refers veterans to agencies accredited by Assistance Dogs International. Veterans are not charged for the dog itself or the associated training.
VA will cover some additional expenses associated with service dog ownership, such as veterinary care if the dog is deemed medically necessary for the rehabilitation or care plan of a veteran with permanent physical disabilities. This care includes:
- Prescribed medications;
- Office visits for medical procedures;
- One sedated dental procedure per year;
- Any vaccinations not administered while in the care of a service dog organization;
- Prescribed food on a case-by-case basis.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will NOT cover purchases of:
- Non-sedated dental care;
- Over-the-counter medications, such as flea and tick medications.