PAWS Up! The Benefits of Service Dogs and Mental Health

By: Jason Jowers, M.S. MFT

Closeup Photo of Brown and Black Dog Face
Pexels [Closeup Photo of Brown and Black Dog Face by Lum3n.com, July 9, 2015, CC0]
A few months back, my wife and I added a new member to our family. His name is Copper and he is a two-year-old Basset Hound. Copper is a rescue dog, and as common with rescues, we didn’t get much info on his past. His life before he ended up at an animal rescue shelter is still a mystery to us. He was very anxious and skittish when we first met him. But, we loved Copper from the very first day, and it took him about a week to really open up to us. Pretty soon, he started to feel comfortable in his new home. Now he can’t get enough belly rubs or treats!

Copper is not the only one that experienced changes regarding his behavior and health. My wife and I also started noticing changes to our mental health. We were feeling happier, more connected, and really appreciating the structure and routines that our new dog had brought into our life.

Current Research

It is no surprise that animal companions bring these transformations in physical and mental health. This Psychology Today article explores how dogs can drive emotional well-being. Research shows that doggy companions improve physical and cardiovascular health. Also, they help in lowering cholesterol and decreasing blood pressure. Dogs can also help with mental health. They help decrease emotional and psychological stress. Even an act as simple as walking your canine companion can get you up, outside, and provide boosts to your mental health. The comfort and emotional connection these creatures offer can affect us on every level.

The PAWS Act

As growing research highlights the benefits of companion dogs, the VA is conducting their own study of the use of service dogs. The research indicates that service dogs can help military service members and veterans with PTSD and other mental health problems. This article from Military.com highlights the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service members Act, Also known as the PAWS Act. Currently, the VA supports using service dogs in exclusive cases where there are physical or mobility issues. However, changes to the PAWS Act could lead to the VA offering $25,000 vouchers for veterans living with PTSD to use at qualifying nonprofit agencies.

Many groups currently working with service or emotional support dogs and veterans note the positive outcomes of establishing connections between veterans and their pups. The VA’s findings on service dogs and emotional support canines in relation to veterans with PTSD will be released in the summer of 2020 and their subsequent official position on the PAWS Act will follow.

If my family’s experience of adopting a dog is any indicator, I could see the PAWS Act benefiting many veterans and military service members. This act would connect them with service dogs to help with issues of PTSD, anxiety, and suicide prevention. For more on the therapeutic benefits of service dogs and how animal-assisted therapy can help with mental and physical health issues, be sure to listen to our MFLN FD Anchored podcast episode, “Four Legged Healers: Exploring Animal Assisted Therapy.”

References

Osten, C. (2018). “How Dogs Drive Emotional Well-Being.” Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-right-balance/201804/how-dogs-drive-emotional-well-being

Mills-Gregg, D. (2019). “Bill Would Cover Cost of Service Dogs for Veterans with PTSD.” Retrieved from: https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/12/16/bill-would-cover-cost-service-dogs-veterans-ptsd.html

This post was written by members of the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families.  Learn more about us at https://militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/family-development, and connect with us on Facebook, and on Twitter.  Subscribe to our Anchored. podcast series on iTunes and via our podcast page.

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