Guide and Service Dog Programs
Guide and service dogs have a long history of providing physical and psychological health benefits to veterans. The first guide dogs were trained in the early 1900s to assist vision-impaired troops returning from WWI. Meanwhile, service dogs were first used in 1945 to help soldiers returning from WWII with signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Veterans continue to see remarkable results from therapy programs that utilize guide and service dogs. The human/animal bond is like no other. While all companion animals can provide emotional support to their humans, guide and service dogs are professionally trained to perform specific tasks. Their training teaches them how to surpass natural dog behavior to do things that their owners, or handlers, cannot do themselves.
Guide Dog vs. Service Dog
Guide dogs receive training to help blind or vision-impaired individuals navigate through daily life. Their role is like that of a pilot, directing their handler to walk in a straight line and avoid obstacles. The handler then trains alongside the dog to learn how to give it commands and direction.
Service dogs are trained to help veterans with other disabilities, including hearing loss, to perform daily tasks that are too difficult for the veterans to do alone. This might include retrieving items, opening doors, and even moving objects out of the way when the veteran is having a seizure.
Guide and service dogs differ from assisted-therapy dogs in that guide and service dogs are intended for personal use by a specific veteran, while assisted-therapy dogs help therapists provide services in a medical setting. Guide and service dogs are usually permitted in places regarded as off-limits to dogs, such as hospitals, restaurants and on airplanes.
Veterans interested in acquiring a guide or service dog need a prescription from a doctor or another authorized clinician, who must consider the longevity of the relationship between a handler and his or her dog. If the vet and his or her family or caregiver have the ability and means to care for the dog long term, the clinician will outline therapy goals that include the guide or service dog.
If the VA approves the request, the veteran is referred to agencies accredited by Assistance Dogs International. These agencies are the ones that actually make the connection between the dog and the veteran. The VA then offers extended support by providing free veterinary care and necessary therapy equipment, such as harnesses. The handler is responsible for food, grooming, boarding and other basic costs involved with owning a dog.
Agencies Providing Guide and Service Dogs
Assistance Dogs International accredits service dog placement programs and maintains a current list of these providers on its website. The International Guide Dog Federation has approximately 80 member organizations around the globe connecting vision-impaired individuals with certified guide dogs. Specific veteran-focused programs include:
- Wags4Patriots - This initiative of the American Humane Association specializes in connecting veterans with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, anxiety and other mental disorders with dogs trained to tune into their handler's emotions. Services are provided free of charge to veterans.
- America's VetDogs - Works with the VA and other military organizations to provide dogs to active military members and honorably-discharged veterans with visual or hearing impairments or other physical disabilities. Their PTSD service dog program is limited to veterans with combat-related PTSD. All services are provided at no cost to clients, including transportation costs to and from their New York campus.
- This Able Veteran - In addition to providing service dogs to veterans, the organization offers a three-week trauma resiliency training program to ensure that canines and their humans leave the program with the strongest bond possible.
- Patriot PAWS - Funded by corporations and individuals, Patriot PAWS trains and provides high-quality service dogs at no cost to disabled American veterans. The dogs undergo extensive training to help restore emotional and physical independence to veterans.