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House bill would connect the VA with local service dog training programs.

Even amid heated partisan conflict, there is one thing a group of House Democrats and Republicans agree on: passing a bill that would connect veterans with service dogs in their local communities. 

Under the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act, which was introduced in September, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would partner with non-profit organizations that focus on training veterans and service dogs to create work therapy programs. 

The PAWS Act combines elements from similar pieces of legislation, like the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act, which garnered bipartisan support in past Congresses but has never made it in to law.

 “When we make the decision to send young men and women to fight for our country, we make the decision to support them for the rest of their lives,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said at a press conference urging passage of the bill last month.

“This is a non-partisan responsibility and it couldn’t be more clear or urgent as we recognize the staggering rates of suicide among our veterans. For the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have now lost more service members to suicide than we have in combat. That is devastating, that is unacceptable.”

According to Slotkin’s office, veterans would play a central role in training the therapy dogs. Upon completion of the program they will have the option to adopt the dog for continuing therapy. 

Studies from the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine show that working with service dogs provides both behavioral and physiological benefits for veterans that can counter some symptoms of PTSD.  According to Purdue, veterans with service dogs show lower risks of substance abuse and better mental health outcomes overall.

The link between veterans and mental illnesses like depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is well documented. One 2015 study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that veterans have rates of depression that are five times higher than the civilian population. And the same study found combat veterans experience PTSD at a rate that is 15 times higher than civilians.