For years, advocacy groups have said veterans experiencing PTSD could benefit from specially trained service dogs.
Now, with new research in hand and the backing of Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs is set to begin a pilot program that will put service dogs into the homes of veterans without cost.
The idea of a psychiatric service dogs is fairly new, emerging in the post-9/11 era.
“The beginning of the field was largely driven by anecdotes and stories of how veterans were benefiting from their service dogs,” said Kerri Rodriguez, a human-animal interaction researcher at Colorado State University.
Initially, VA officials were hesitant to support funding for service dogs due to a dearth of research. Congress mandated a study in 2010, but it was suspended twice due to problems with the dogs’ health and training.
The VA finally released its findings in 2020. That study, combined with other work by researchers such as Rodriguez, was promising.
“What we found was pretty much exactly what (veterans) were saying,” she said. “Which was that service dogs are actually clinically beneficial to veterans with PTSD.”
“Veterans with service dogs have significantly lower levels of PTSD symptoms than those that did not have a service dog,” she said. “But they also had benefits in other areas of life, including lower levels of depression, lower anxiety, increased quality of life (and) increased social participation.”
That last point tracks with Scot Pondelick’s experience.
He served overseas in explosive ordnance disposal, or in civilian terms, the bomb squad.
Pondelick said he was more or less a shut-in after leaving the military. He’d leave the house for groceries and to do his laundry every once in a while.
“I’d spend weeks and weeks inside,” he said. “I’d have styrofoam up on my bedroom window. A sheet on my back door, so no light comes into my apartment.”
Then came Venus. Pondelick thinks she’s part retriever, part bloodhound, and part great pyrenees. But he isn’t sure, because she came from the shelter.
“She’s very soft and lovable and super calm, and everybody loves her,” he said.
Now Pondelick and Venus go outside every day. And at least once a week, they meet with other veterans and first responders who have PTSD service dogs.
It’s part of a continuing education regimen from a group called Missouri Patriot Paws.
Sandra Sindeldecker, a volunteer with the group, said it takes at least nine months to train a dog like Venus. She starts with simple tasks that any well-trained dog might learn, then moves to PTSD-specific skills, such as how dogs should respond when their owners are anxious or about to experience a panic attack.
“The dog immediately notices that something’s wrong,” she said. “They recognize the symptom, but now we task-train them to react how we want them to.”
If there’s a large crowd of people or an unruly line at the cash register, a dog might sit in between the strangers and its owner so the veteran feels protected.
Sindeldecker also takes dogs to firehouses to familiarize them with firefighters, paramedics, and the loud vehicles they sometimes drive around town. “A lot of these guys are calling 911 or having to take an ambulance, and the dogs are terrified,” she said.
That sort of training is expensive. And while Missouri Patriot Paws is volunteer-run and supported by donations, Sindeldecker said the decision to fund service dogs validates the work she and others across the country have been doing for years.
She said her husband, also an Army veteran, first heard about the concept several years ago from his VA psychiatrist — even though it was the canine equivalent of an “off-label” recommendation.
He found a service dog, and it changed their lives. “That’s why we continued (training others),” she said. “Because now he can go out to eat at a restaurant. And he hadn’t done that for 10 years.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.