DC Journal | Congress Should Throw Service Dog Programs a Bone

April 3, 2024

Congress has averted another government shutdown. But often lost in the shuffle during these multi-trillion-dollar budget battles are appropriations for lifesaving veteran programs that employ wagging tails to heal invisible wounds of war. Policymakers should consider throwing these types of initiatives a bigger financial bone. Current funding for veteran service dog initiatives is scant.

For example, the 2021 Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act created a five-year pilot program in select cities where service dogs would be implemented into veteran treatment programs. However, the initiative has been plagued with funding hiccups, and eligibility remains extremely limited. Although good in theory, the program has so far fallen short.

More veterans need help now — not years down the line.

Veterans are navigating a crisis of epic proportions. Untreated or undertreated mental health conditions are leading former service members to an early grave. In a particularly sobering statistic, more veterans have died of suicide than from combat since the September 11 terror attacks. Meanwhile, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 24 former military members take their lives daily.

A growing body of research confirms what former service members have anecdotally said for years: specially trained service dogs can act as a lifeline in these cases. A wagging tail can play a significant role in helping veterans recover and readjust to a more normal life after returning from the battlefield.

A 2022 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that veterans — as well as first responders — suffering from post-traumatic stress demonstrated fewer symptoms when accompanied by service dogs. In addition to companionship and emotional support, these animals can help detect and then interrupt flashback episodes — stopping panic attacks, intense shaking, and heart palpitations early on.

At American Humane, we’ve seen firsthand how service dogs can benefit former men and women in uniform.

Through the Pups4Patriots program, dogs in search of forever homes are trained to be lifesaving service animals for veterans suffering from the mental wounds of war — all free to the veterans. Success stories are plentiful. Last year, for example, an Army veteran who participated in the program graduated from college after being paired with a lifesaving service dog.

Unfortunately, the current level of government resources committed to programs like these — even when combined with the generous support of private donors — is not cutting it. The problem is just too big. Fortunately, a path forward has already been introduced. The Service Dogs Assisting Veterans Act is legislation establishing an annual $10 million grant program to support nonprofit organizations that train and pair service dogs with veterans.

It is through private-public partnerships like these that we can truly make a difference in the lives of veterans struggling with mental health.

Lawmakers in Washington continuously butt heads about funding the federal government. Amid the debate, Congress should consider appropriating a small fraction of that money to provide veterans with a healing leash. In the grand scheme of a $6 trillion federal budget, it is a small price to pay to save heroes in uniform.

Dr. Robin Ganzert is president and CEO of American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization.