Maybe Veterans Administration was right to shut down a clinical trial of service dogs for people with Post-Traumatic Stress, but it’s clearly wrong to keep stiff-arming the service-dog idea rather than embracing it. Back in 2008, before I was an official blogger at the RBC, Mark wrote about my efforts on behalf of NEADS (I’m on the board) to get the VA to consider helping with the cost of service dogs for wounded combat veterans.
Now the Atlantic has a piece about service dogs in the treatment of soldiers’ post-traumatic stress disorder. Apparently the VA suspended their study with a Tampa charity providing this type of dog to veterans. NEADS is mentioned prominently, since we have completed a pilot program in providing specially trained dogs to assist in the treatment of PTSD (our veterans dislike the term, so we call the program “TAD,” for trauma-alert dogs) in combat veterans. I know absolutely nothing about Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, Inc., in Williston, Florida or the suspension of its relationship with the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, and I wish to stress that nothing here is intended to disparage either organization, but I am quite concerned about the scattergun, reactive approach that seems to be the VA’s response to efforts to supply veterans with service dogs.
The role played by dogs in the treatment of PTSD (regardless of origin) is easily understood at its core. In 1990, I experienced a home invasion. I was not physically injured, but the experience was profoundly terrifying. Psychotherapy got me over an initial period of acute symptoms, but for years– literally years– I suffered from hyper vigilance and sleep disturbance. I found it almost impossible to sleep anywhere other than at my own home, and even then I woke up many times at night, obsessively checking window and door locks. The symptoms stopped, though, when I had a houseguest named Bear, an enormous obedience-challenged longhaired German Shepherd who belonged to friends. Bear came to me when his people were out of town and I found that within a few visits, I slept right through the night. Bear could hear an actual person in the hallway outside my apartment. He got up and waited at the door, head cocked, until he was satisfied that there was no threat. I might jolt awake at the sound of a branch scraping the roof, but Bear was not fooled. He raised his head, but did not get up. It did not take long for my subconscious to learn that Bear was on the job and much better at it than I. So I slept when he was with me. I borrowed him when I needed to go out of town and stay in a motel. Theory proved: I slept. And an aside, driving long distances can be a nasty experience for a woman alone. When night descends, those highway rest areas are magnets for creepy people. I used to avoid drinking (anything) to avoid the need for a bathroom break. Ladies: try hopping out of your car with a well trained German Shepherd at your side and watch the creeps scatter. Ah, the empowerment. This restroom is mine!
Bear was not a service dog. He was what I later came to call a reasonable accommodation pet, in the sense that a landlord subject to the ADA could be required to suspend a no-pet policy if it could be medically established that I needed him for basic life functions. Service dogs are different because of public access. Service dogs actually perform tasks to assist a disabled person do things. The person needs the dog just as he might need an assistive device, so where he goes, the dog goes.
Which brings us back to the TAD program. It was born because of the expertise of my colleague, Cynthia Crosson, Ph.D., and the experience of NEADS in providing regular service dogs to combat veterans with physical disabilities. One of our veterans told us that he used to be plunged back into combat mentality every time he left a building because he could not stop himself from looking up to check for snipers on rooftops, and that brought him right back into the trauma. His service dog was not trained for this, but dogs are brilliant interpreters of human behavior. It did not take long for the dog to put it together: human walks through door, looks up, develops a bad mood. So when the veteran and his dog walked through a doorway, the dog bumped his head into the man’s leg, distracting him long enough that he forgot to check for snipers. Problem solved.
The TAD program is hugely time-consuming for Dr. Crosson and the staff members who assist her. We have a rigorous screening program that requires thorough investigation of the client’s psychiatric history and current status to ensure that he or she is well enough to care for the dog as well as symptomatically in need. NEADS TAD dogs are individually trained to perform services tailored to mitigate the veteran’s symptoms of PTSD.
I have not been wowed by efforts of the VA to incorporate service dogs into the treatment of veterans. At the time of the VA’s response to traditional service dogs, the organization seemed profoundly misinformed about the issue. With the current news about the suspension of the relationship between it seems possible that the VA jumped the gun in its haste to recover from its initial blunder. As I said in my 2008 letter to the VA, so long as the efforts of legitimate charities like NEADS are disparaged and forced to scramble for cash, a shadow industry in bogus service dogs will thrive.
Part of the TAD program requires out clients to participate in follow up surveys so we can track the actual effectiveness of the program. We hope that data will bear out my own experience in actual measurable terms. In the meantime, it sure would be nice if the VA got its act together on a national level.