CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Special people have served our country, and special dogs keep many of those veterans going once the military life is over.
The U.S. government provides free service dogs through the Veterans Affairs Department's Prosthetic & Sensory Aids Service. The newly implemented PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) Act expands that service to include veterans diagnosed with mental illness.
"About five years ago, we went to the VA and said, ‘Hey, we found a way to really help veterans fight suicide and get much better,’ and they told us there was no scientific evidence proving that a service dog can help a veteran. So, K9s for Warriors did a whole bunch of research with our partners at Purdue University, and then we wrote the PAWS Act,” said Rory Diamond, who is the CEO of K9s for Warriors.
K9s for Warriors is a nationwide nonprofit based in Florida. The organization rescues dogs, trains them into service dogs, then provides those dogs to veterans for free. But there is a waitlist four years long. In hopes of reducing that time, a San Antonio, Texas K9s for Warriors center was opened in October.
Advocates, K9s for Warriors, and another organization called Canine Companions have pushed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for support in providing more service dogs to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. They say, before the PAWS Act, the VA did not recognize service dogs as legitimate treatment for PTSD.
Then came the signing of the PAWS Act . President Biden signed the law during the summer. As of January 1, it is in effect.
PAWS requires the VA to establish a pilot program that provides canine training to eligible veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. A VA public affairs specialist tells KRIS 6 News that they are still finalizing the program but will begin with a five-year study in at least five pilot sites on February 21. The announcement of those locations will not be made until then.
"Signed into law by the President on August 25, 2021, the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act (P.L. 117-37) requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct a 5-year pilot program to provide canine training to eligible Veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act will conduct a pilot program to provide canine training to eligible Veterans diagnosed with PTSD as an element of a complementary and integrative health program; the pilot program will run for 5 years in at least 5 pilot sites. The PAWS Act specifies that participating Veterans will receive training and supervision from certified service dog instructors. The pilot program is required to commence by February 21, 2022."
"Hopefully it won’t take five years, and in a year or two we can come back with PAWS 2.0 and say ‘Hey, let's fund this,’” Diamond said.
The PAWS Act closes a significant gap on an invisible disability, one that is finally recognized by the government as deserving of service dog treatment.