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For depression and PTSD, a wag of the tail works

If you look at this photo of me and puppy Harmony, you can see that I’m happy. I can’t prove that I’m happy, besides telling you that I AM happy. I can’t produce any scientific evidence confirming my happiness. No one can see the levels of serotonin flowing through my brain to prove that I’m happy, but I am.

Therein lies the problem for veterans with PTSD who want some help paying the expenses of their service dogs.  There is no proof that the service dogs help these warriors deal with the horrors of war. There is no research proving that a Marine’s anxiety level drops when his service dog gently awakens him from a nightmare or sweeps a darkened room and turns on the lights so he can enter without reliving a deadly ambush.

This lack of evidence is one of the reasons the Veteran’s Administration gave in deciding not to pay service dog benefits for vets who suffer from PTSD but have no physical wounds from war.

Though many commenters asserted that there is sufficient clinical evidence that VA could presently use to support administering mental health service dog benefits, the only evidence submitted in support of this assertion were anecdotal accounts of subjective benefits, including: decreased dependence on medications; increased sense of safety or decreased sense of hyper-vigilance; increased sense of calm; and the use of the dog as a physical buffer to keep others at a comfortable distance. Again, we do not discount commenters’ personal experiences, but we cannot reasonably use these subjective accounts as a basis for the administration of VA benefits.

It comes down to this: The Department of Veterans Affairs will pay service-dog benefits to veterans with vision, hearing or mobility-related injuries, but not to veterans suffering only with post-traumatic-stress-disorder and other mental health disabilities.

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs made this finding in a 67-page, final draft of rules concerning veterans in need of service dogs that was published in the Federal Register earlier this month. The new rule will become final next month. In justifying its decision, the VA cited “nationally established” and “widely accepted” training protocols for sight, hearing and mobility-assistance dogs and the lack of similar training protocols for mental health service dogs.

In addition, the VA found that because there is little clinical research on mental health service dogs, the “VA has not yet been able to determine that these dogs provide medical benefit to veterans with mental illness.”

Of course, the VA goes on to say that this lack of empirical proof is the “precise reason VA is currently gathering evidence in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) study—to determine how, exactly, service dogs may perform specific tasks or work that mitigates the effects of mental health disabilities, and others who might come in contact with the veteran or the dog.”

This is good. However, history has proven that the federal government is not exactly speedy when it comes to doing much of anything. So, the vets with PTSD who want a little help defraying the costs of caring for their service dog probably won’t see the results of this research during their service dog’s lifetime. We’re not talking about paying for nail-trimming, license tags or food. We’re not talking about the cost of the dog itself or its training, which can easily exceed $10,000. We’re talking about paying for “a commercially available insurance policy” for the dog.

The policy will guarantee coverage for all treatment (and associated prescription medications), subject to premiums, copayments, deductibles or annual caps, determined to be medically necessary, including euthanasia, by any veterinarian who meets the requirements of the insurer. The veteran will not be billed for these covered costs, and the insurer will directly reimburse the provider. benefits will no longer be authorized.

And the dog cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Probably the biggest expenses are paying the travel expenses of getting the dog – and service dogs fly for free.

So, how much are we talking about? I don’t have any exact numbers but surely we’re not looking at millions of dollars. The VA has asked for $70.3 billion this year for benefits for vets, their families and survivors.

I have depression and alcoholism and I have two dogs. London is an English bulldog who can make me laugh out loud by simply laying on the couch with a sliver of her tongue poking through her under bite. Dog (that’s his name) is my mutt who protects me and is right now sleeping on a dog bed beneath the desk where I’m writing.

I’ve always had dogs. During my last depression, I had a hyperactive Weimaraner who accompanied me on midnight walks when I couldn’t sleep and simply refused to let me wallow in my fetal-position misery. Frankly, that dog was a pain in my ass but she saved me. I can’t prove it but without her, I know my recovery would’ve taken much, much longer.

Some things in life you can’t prove with science, like love, God and why some soldiers return from war with PTSD and others do not. But I know that love, God and PTSD are real. Taxes are, too. I would prefer that my tax-dollars be spent on healing the wounds of war than war itself. While it’s extremely important to ensure that men and women have the weapons and resources to fight during the war, it’s equally as important to ensure they have the necessary support to heal their physical AND emotional wounds after the war as well. I’d gladly pay a tax if I knew the money would help a vet get a good night’s sleep, or would  enable a vet to walk into a dark room without having a flashback.

I will pay higher taxes if it means young men and women who no longer have arms and legs will get the very best, cutting-edge prosthesis for the rest of their lives – and I’m equally as willing to pay for a dog that keeps a vet from sinking into depression or turning to drugs and alcohol to lessen the pain of the wounds you and I cannot see.

And never, ever want to see.




For depression and PTSD, a wag of the tail works

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2012). For depression and PTSD, a wag of the tail works. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Sep 2012
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