Congress lends a paw to veterans

By Hayley Nagelberg, Columnist

Dog is man’s best friend. This has been common knowledge for years, but it’s taken on new meaning recently. Being man’s best friend no longer just means standing loyally nearby. Lawmakers are now recognizing these best friends because of their therapeutic benefits for individuals with special needs, and even veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A groundbreaking act was introduced to Congress on March 16 addressing these therapeutic benefits that dogs might provide to veterans. The act is aptly titled Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers. If you missed it, that acronym spells out PAWS. 

Since 2001, American citizens have served this country and come home as veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. This new act estimates that 14 percent of the members of our armed forces who have returned home from these operations suffer from PTSD.

PTSD is a condition that comes from witnessing something tragic or terrifying. The symptoms include flashbacks, intense anxiety and loss of sleep. There is no cure, but various treatments have been practiced for years, most involving medication.

This act proposes matching veterans with service dogs. That this treatment does not include medication is an incredible step forward for addressing mental conditions.

According to a 2014 Pew Report, before 9/11, 16 percent of all veterans suffered from PTSD, and 35 percent knew of, or served with, someone with PTSD. Post 9/11, the percent of people who personally had PTSD was 37 percent and the percent who knew of, or served with, someone with PTSD was 58 percent. The numbers for the people who were personally suffering from PTSD were self reported, which means that even those who did not have an official diagnosis but felt they had the symptoms are included. 

Whether the higher Pew Report’s numbers or the PAWS act’s numbers are correct, the statistics are incredibly high. With these rates of PTSD come many other consequences that burden returning veterans: rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide are elevated among former servicemembers.

Our country must show support for our veterans who return home and ensure they receive everything they need to reintegrate into society safely and productively.

The Veteran’s Affairs committee has been trying for years to find new ways to appropriately care for the men and women who fought for our freedoms.

This act does not provide a service dog to every individual with PTSD. Rather, the veterans must be measured on a clinician-administered PTSD scale at a level three or four. The ratings on this scale are leveled from zero to four representing an absence of PTSD, mild or subthreshold levels of PTSD, moderate or threshold level, severe or markedly elevated and extreme or incapacitating. 

To be eligible for the treatment, veterans also must have not received adequate improvement from other treatment methods. If they are deemed eligible, they will be given 30 hours of training over the course of 90 days with their service dogs, and be given consistent follow-up services as needed.

The PAWS act’s main aim is to provide service dogs to veterans with a certain level of PTSD as an alternative treatment method, based on the proven success of using dogs in animal-assisted therapy.

Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses animals as aids in therapeutic settings. There are countless benefits to the inclusion of animals in therapy, and for veterans with PTSD, that is true as well. The bill explains that a service dog can form a buffer to the stress response associated with heightened fight-flight-freeze responses that servicemembers often suffer from. Additionally, studies have shown that the use of dogs with people with PTSD lowers anxiety and feelings of isolation, improves interpersonal interactions, physical pain and sleep.

This act is the first step of many in ensuring our veterans are supported properly for all they have done for this nation. While there is more research to be done on the uses of animals in therapy settings, the current evidence is promising and this act will further encourage future research to be done.

It’s encouraging to see Congress begin to address the alarming statistics of veteran PTSD rates with something as innovative and positive as trained service dogs.

Hayley is a freshman in ACES.

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