The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) recently collaborated with Trupanion, an established medical insurance company for pets, to create the U.S. Veteran Service Dog Program. This program grants unlimited veterinary care to certified service dogs that assist U.S. veterans. Trupanion has agreed to pay 100 percent of the dogs’ veterinary bills to make sure they can stay healthy and happy.1 The VA and Trupanion hope to relieve the financial burden on veterans, and allow veterinarians and veterinary technicians to focus on their canine patients, rather than worry about the cost of care.
The VA and Trupanion have worked to make this program as efficient and streamlined as possible. They simply require veterinarians to send Trupanion a bill for care, regardless of whether the dog was visiting them for a regular checkup or for an emergency procedure. Trupanion is dedicated to reimbursing veterinarians right away to keep their invoicing as hassle-free as possible.1 The VA provides a list of all the certified service dogs that are provided for veterans in need and that list is shared with Trupanion. Each dog is assigned a tag with a specific policy number. Veterans are simply responsible for reporting that number to their veterinary technician - the rest is taken care of by Trupanion. Veterans who are eligible to work with service dogs do not pay for the dog or the associated training.1
Service dogs are important in the lives of veterans
Service dogs have been very important in the lives of U.S. veterans for years. These dogs are trained and certified to assist veterans with disabilities other than visual or hearing impairments. Veterans who request the help of a service dog are evaluated by a health care professional to determine if the veteran will be able to care for the dog, or if they have family or a caregiver that can assist them. Veterans are also interviewed so the clinician can evaluate the goals the dog will help that veteran accomplish.2
An important and widely supported bill has been introduced in the Virginia Senate to ensure veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have access to service dogs in that state. A representative from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals explained in an interview that service dogs are able to help people who have “invisible injuries” like PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. However, these issues are often misunderstood by the uninformed public, and so many veterans run into problems in public establishments like hotels and restaurants because business owners do not see what the veteran’s disability is. Veterans use service dogs to alleviate the stress of anxiety issues, which is just one example of the ailments many veterans suffer from that is not an obvious affliction.3
The bill proposes to change the definition of who is eligible to work with a service dog to include those veterans who suffer from other disabilities besides visual or hearing impairments. This new definition would help to cover the physical, sensory, developmental, intellectual, or other mental disability or illness that many veterans suffer from.3 The verbiage describing the tasks a VA-certified service dog would perform would also be changed with the passage of this new bill, and would include helping a person during a seizure, preventing destructive behavior and “nonviolent protection.”3 Those in support of the bill believe it will raise awareness of how service dogs can help veterans suffering from PTSD. If the bill passes through the Senate it will move on to the House for approval.
Patients suffering from PTSD find comfort with the help of a service dog
Service dogs assigned to veterans who suffer from PTSD can assist them in a variety of ways. The dogs can wake veterans from a nightmare, or create a buffer in crowded areas or public places, which might otherwise cause the veteran anxiety. The VA has conducted studies to determine how to best pair dogs with PTSD patients. According to the organization’s reports, more than 300,000 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which often disrupts their daily life with nightmares, paranoia, panic attacks and substance abuse.4
Service dogs have been found to provide other benefits. Veterans who feel “emotionally numb” find comfort in encouraging their dogs, and that emotional connection tends to draw out isolated personalities. The patient can develop more patience as they train their service dog and learn to be assertive rather than aggressive. Many veterans experience hypervigilance, which can be assuaged by the presence of a loving dog. Bonding with dogs has biological effects, according to researchers. Levels of the hormone oxytocin increase as a patient gains confidence working with service dogs, which helps patients overcome paranoia and anxiety, and this type of emotional support has been found to be very beneficial in the treatment of veterans who are plagued with panic.5
1 Scheidegger, Julie, “VA-certified service dogs receive unlimited access to veterinary care,” Veterinary News.dvm.com, Jan. 23, 2014, http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/dvm/Veterinary+news/VA-certified-service-dogs-receive-unlimited-access/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/833561
2 “Guide and Service Dogs,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.gov, http://www.va.gov/health/serviceandguidedogs.asp
3 Davis, Chelyen, “General Assembly: Service-dog bill is gaining traction,” The Free Lance-Star, Jan. 24, 2014, http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2014/01/24/general-assembly-service-dog-bill-is-gaining-traction/
4 “VA To Resume PTSD Service Dog Study,” Forbes.com, Nov. 22, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/rebeccaruiz/2013/11/22/va-to-resume-ptsd-service-dog-study/
5 Colin, Chris, “How Dogs Can Help Veterans Overcome PTSD,” Smithsonian Mag.com, July 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-dogs-can-help-veterans-overcome-ptsd-137582968/