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Advocates Say VA Is Taking Too Long To Assign Service Dogs To Vets


On this Veterans Day here in the United States, we report on the effort to pair those who served with service dogs. It is widely believed that dogs can help with mental health issues, and that includes post-traumatic stress, which is why advocates want the Department of Veterans Affairs to act more quickly. Here's Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: This conversation has been going on for years.


COLE LYLE: Service dogs will save lives.

BOYCE: That's former Marine Corporal Cole Lyle speaking before a congressional subcommittee in 2016, arguing for resources to use service dogs for PTSD treatment, his own dog Kaya at his feet. Lyle's life fell apart after his service in Afghanistan. Losing military friends to suicide, he nearly chose the same path himself.


LYLE: I still have my bad days, but with Kaya at my side, I'm largely in a different phase; I call it recovery.

KEN MORROW: Go down. Flat.

BOYCE: Today in Colorado Springs, Air Force veteran Ken Morrow has a black German shepherd named Toby. Morrow never deployed, but he was subjected to years of loud explosions. Before leaving the service in 2004, he took a blow to the head.

MORROW: I have a traumatic brain injury. I have hearing issues. I have mobility issues.

BOYCE: Like vertigo. And he also pins long-standing anger issues on that head injury. He says his wife worries she'll get a call from the police if he goes somewhere without Toby.

MORROW: He keeps me from going to the next extreme.

BOYCE: A few years ago, Morrow did extensive training with Toby at the facility where we're standing now. It's run by Victory Service Dogs, a nonprofit where Morrow is now volunteer vice president.

MORROW: If I start walking away like I was going to fall, he would pull out of my trainer's hand and come charge and cover me up.

BOYCE: To prove his point, Morrow demonstrates. He gives Toby's leash to a trainer and starts walking away, then starts stumbling a little, simulating an attack of vertigo.


BOYCE: Immediately, Toby reacts, whining and pulling hard at the leash.


BOYCE: The trainer lets go of Toby, who sprints to Morrow, now laying on the ground.

MORROW: Hey, calm down. You're fine. You're fine. I'm fine.

BOYCE: Victory Service Dogs has helped about 250 veterans since opening in 2015, only charging a $50 application fee, though, normally, matching veterans with dogs and facilitating their training costs thousands of dollars. The Department of Veterans Affairs will help obtain and take care of dogs for veterans who suffer from physical disabilities like blindness or deafness, though not for mental health issues like PTSD. The agency started to study whether dogs can help with conditions like PTSD eight years ago but says it will be 2020 before it has results. Some in Congress are tired of waiting.

JOHN RUTHERFORD: How bad can it go? We're giving them a dog, for God's sake.

BOYCE: Florida Republican Representative John Rutherford is the sponsor of the PAWS Act - that's P, A, W, S - which would create a $10 million grant fund through the VA. The VA is not yet endorsing his bill, but that's not stopping him.

RUTHERFORD: We have tons of anecdotal stories of service members saying, look - but for that dog, I would be dead today.

BOYCE: A study published last year by Purdue University found veterans suffering PTSD slept better and experienced less anger and anxiety if they had service dogs. There is a small pilot program through the VA that's matched a couple dozen veterans with service dogs over the last couple of years. But the vast majority of veterans seeking these dogs for mental health still have to rely on philanthropy or their own wallets.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Colorado Springs.


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