U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis coordinated a panel discussion, hosted at USF’s College of Public Health on June 21, to discuss the mental health benefits of trained service dogs and how to make them more accessible to veterans.
“The invisible wounds [veterans] sustained serving our country are just as serious as the physical ones,” Bilirakis said to the audience of non-profit veteran services organizations, along with individuals from the community and their service dogs, who came to hear more about the use of service dogs in addressing the mental health of veterans.
Panelist included: veterans Danique Masingill and Capt. Jason Haag, both from the American Humane Association; Cathy Williams, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist and supervisor for James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital recreational department; and veteran Brian Anderson, co-founder and director of Veterans’ Alternative Center.
Haag, a Marine veteran, served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and shared that without his service dog, Axel, named 2015 Service Dog of the Year at the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards, he wouldn’t be sitting here today.
Last summer, a firework went off at a family vacation and sent Haag immediately into a flashback.
“I thought it was a sniper attack,” he said. “I had my nephew who was nine months old in my arms. I hit the ground immediately; I have no idea how I didn’t squish him to this day.”
As the fireworks continued going off, Haag ran to the house, where he kicked the front door off its hinges, closed himself in a room and started crying in the fetal position.
Haag said that Axel opened the door and came inside, delivering his medication. Within 15 minutes, Haag said he was calmed down and completely fine.
“I can tell you right now if I did not have Axel, I probably would’ve downed as many pain pills that I could’ve found, drank myself into an oblivion, would have had to leave my vacation, and it probably would have taken me 30 days to get out of that depression,” Haag said.
For two hours, the panel and participants discussed the need to establish national certification standards for both handlers and certified trainers, as well as the potential use of biometric technology to capture data needed to validate the effectiveness of service dog therapy.
They also discussed the need to teach civilians how to react when they see service animals.
Masingill, a Navy veteran, says that as a female she is often mistaken for a dog trainer instead of a veteran, and that she hears people behind her wondering aloud what kind of disability she might have.
“Honestly, I really have to be frank and say, ‘Would you talk to someone in a wheelchair like this?’ ” Masingill said. “Why is it ok to talk about my disability so out in public, but you wouldn’t say that to somebody who has, I don’t know, a birth defect or a prosthetic? You would never go up to them and be like, ‘Can I pet your prosthetic?’ ”
It’s about teaching the American public how to interact with us and respecting their boundaries, she said.
Another concern that panelists and audience members had is how difficult it is to get a service dog. It’s time consuming and expensive—each dog costing around $17,000—according to Bilirakis.
These dogs are worth every penny, though, to those who need them.
Anderson, who served as a journalist and a Green Beret for ten years in the military, received his service dog Hero in 2014.
Anderson said he’d tried traditional therapies like prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapy, and while traditional therapies work for some, he said that the reality is that one size doesn’t fit all and that these alternative methods make big differences.
“They change people’s lives, and they restore people’s lives,” he said. “That is real integration.”
Anderson has found the most success for himself through a combination of various alternative therapies, like yoga, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART)—researched by Dr. Kevin Kip of the USF College of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics—and spending time with his service dog.
Hero, like all service dogs, is capable of much more than simple companionship. These animals are trained beyond normal pets and are able to sense when their owner is upset or uneasy, to wake them from their nightmares and to pull them out of flashback.
“Literally, he has saved my life in so many different ways,” Anderson said.
During the event, Haag said he received Axel from the non-profit organization K9 for Warriors, and after a quick poll, it was apparent that everybody in the room with a dog had to look beyond the Department of Veterans Affairs to make it happen.
According to the VA’s website, which was last updated in 2015, research is being done to see if dogs can provide a disability service for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the VA presently “doesn’t provide service dogs for physical or mental health issues.”
“Currently, and this has to be changed all the way to the central office, the VA will only pay for a service animal…if you are deemed that you need a dog in place of a cane, crutch, walker or wheelchair,” said Williams.
With that limitation in mind, Williams said that the VA will purchase the harness and provides up to $500 a year in veterinarian bills.
“We want to make it easier for them,” said Bilirakis. “They told us today what the barriers and obstacles are. It’s very difficult to acquire a service dog, and we’re very fortunate that we have non-profits that offer them, but they can’t possibly service everyone. So, I think that the VA needs to step up.”
Bilirakis has served on the Veterans Committee since he was elected in 2007, and views veterans as his top priority.
Last year, Bilirakis introduced the Promoting Responsible Opioid Management and Incorporating Scientific Expertise (PROMISE) Act, which promotes safety and patient advocacy, and the Creating Options for Veterans Expedited Recovery (COVER) Act, which calls for the exploration of alternative therapies, like service dogs, to help veterans integrate back into civilian life.
“Every veteran who needs a service dog should have one, it’s as plain and simple as that,” said Bilirakis.
According to Anderson, 25 percent of suicides in Florida are committed by veterans, but they only account for 9 percent of the state’s population. The typical wait time for service dogs is two years, he said.
The COVER Act is not alone in its push for alternative therapies for veterans, and Bilirakis mentioned the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service members Act (PAWS) Act, which was introduced in March by Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida’s 6th District.
“I don’t care whose bill passes, because that’s not what we’re here for,” Bilirakis said. “We want to make sure that every veteran, if he or she chooses, has access to one of these animals.”
For more information about service dogs and veterans, visit the website of one of the many organizations who were in attendance: Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Alternative, K9 Partners for Patriots, Team Red, White and Blue, Valor Service Dogs, American Humane Association.
Story by AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley, USF College of Public Health
Tags: alternative therapy for veterans, Brian Anderson, community engagement, Danique Masingill, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Gus Bilirakis, James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, Jason Haag, Kevin Kip, mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, service dogs, Veterans