Struggling Veterans Get Help From Congress, Service Dogs

Struggling Veterans Get Help From Congress, Service Dogs Struggling Veterans Get Help From Congress, Service Dogs Military service dogs and their handlers with K9s for Warriors pose for a photo after press conference for H.R. 1448, Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act outside the U.S. Capitol Building on May 13, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

By Eric Mack | Sunday, 22 August 2021 01:34 PM

President Joe Biden is expected to sign a bipartisan bill that assigns service dogs to U.S. veterans, which passed Congress this month.

Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act is a five-year Department of Veterans Affairs program starting Jan. 1, 2022.

"We're encouraged by the passage of this bill by both houses of Congress as an integral first step in the fight against veteran suicide," K9s for Warriors CEO Rory Diamond.

Diamond's organization has helped more than 700 veterans, including 72% who had attempted suicide before being paired with a service dog, he told NBC News.

The VA will likely work with an establish program like Diamond's.

"We're incredibly good at keeping them alive," Diamond said. "So why wouldn't the VA want to be part of that?"

Post-traumatic stress disorder afflicted about 20% of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, according to the VA.

There was also more than 15% increase in calls to the veteran crisis line during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report.

Also, because experts say PTSD is underreported, figures are likely even higher.

Suicide remains a problem for veterans as nearly 90,000 veterans have committed suicide from 2005-2018 with those figures rising even more, according to the VA.

The service dog is trained to pick up on signs of anxiety and help soothe their owner.

"We found that, by and large, the most important and most commonly used task was to calm or comfort anxiety," Purdue University associate professor Maggie O'Haire, who works with K9s for Warriors, told NBC News.

One of the soothing actions is called "lap," according to the report.

"It's basically deep pressure therapy for our warriors," Air Force veteran Christel Fleming, a trainer at K9s for Warriors, told NBC News. "We want the dog to get up, put its two front limbs across the warrior's lap and to stay there calmly."

"Instead of looking at the outside world and being really freaked out about what's going on, [the veteran] can look at their dog, scratch their dog, love on their dog, and calm down."

The dogs are not intended to replace tradition medical or mental healthcare, but instead supplement it, according to O'Haire.