Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act

Support Legislation to Help Bring Dogs and Wounded Service Members Together

Please contact your U.S. representative and ask that he/she cosponsor H.R. 2847 - Photo by Alexandra Alberg

The Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act, introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), is an effort to respond to the growing demand for service dogs by veterans and members of the military. This demand comes amidst mounting evidence of the tremendous benefits—including increased mobility and independence, improved social interactions, less panic, and greatly reduced stress—experienced by wounded warriors who have partnered with these dogs.

To no one’s surprise, we are finding that animals work wonders when they are paired with wounded warriors. The benefits service dogs provide individuals with physical disabilities have long been known. Now, we are seeing the transformative effects specially trained dogs can have on members of the military with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries, or other mental health issues arising from their military experiences.  Such dogs are trained to respond to certain cues. For example, sensing that a human partner is about to suffer a flashback, the dog immediately initiates calming behaviors, such as laying her head in the person’s lap. If the individual is having a nightmare, the dog may rest her head on his chest, lick his face, or nuzzle his feet.

For wounded soldiers and veterans who have difficulty venturing out in public, a service dog can often provide the sense of security and calm that allows the person to resume normal activities. Every story is different, but there are similarities: a soldier returns from a tour of duty—perhaps a second or third—and is unable to readjust to “normal” life. He spends more and more time alone, isolating himself from his family, sinking further into depression to the point where he hides out in his bedroom or basement and eventually stops going outside altogether. The all-too-common response of the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is medication—sometimes in copious amounts—but it often fails to provide relief.

Finally, a friend, a family member, or the individual’s own sense of frustration leads him to explore the service dog idea. Often, the change is dramatic. One wounded warrior who now travels the country on behalf of a program that trains service dogs wouldn’t leave his house before getting his dog. Instead of taking 30 different medications, he now takes two. The benefits of these pairings are also not a one-way street. There is a strong mutual bond of affection and trust between the military members and their canine partners, and many groups that train dogs rescue them from shelters, thus giving both human and animal a new lease on life. 

These dogs are recognized as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed the same public access as seeing-eye or mobility-assistance dogs. Unfortunately, under VA rules, service members seeking dogs to aid with PTSD do not qualify for the benefits available to service members with visual, hearing, or mobility impairment,  who get assistance with veterinary care and travel benefits associated with obtaining and training a dog.[i]  The Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act will help address this unequal treatment of service-related needs.

In the meantime, testimonials to this manifestation of the power of the human-animal bond continue to grow, as do the waiting lists for service dogs. According to an article in Time (December 5, 2010), “some 40,000 troops have been physically wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, but 10 times as many exhibit symptoms of PTSD.” With the growing realization of their positive impact, the need and demand for service dogs to help with PTSD and other mental health problems continue to rise.

The Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act directs the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to establish a program to award competitive grants to organizations that train and place service dogs with members of the military and veterans with certain physical and mental health needs, including PTSD. Among other things, the application for a grant must state “the commitment of the organization to humane standards for the animals.”  The Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act would thus help service dog training programs to better meet the needs of the many service members and veterans who can benefit from these amazing canine partnerships.