Although the use of guide dogs, hearing dogs and mobility dogs to assist persons with disabilities has been in existence for some time, an emerging practice is the use of service dogs to reduce the symptoms of mental illness. Many Veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for instance, incorporate dogs in their approach to manage their health condition.
Emotional support animals, or companion animals, provide companionship and are usually referred to as “pets”. Emotional support dogs are sometimes used in visitation programs to hospitals or residential facilities; however, they are not service dogs. A service dog is a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability and not a response that is natural to an animal.
The increased use of animals, specifically dogs, to manage various disabilities raises issues which include: training approaches and costs, certification, standards, and supply and demand, which can vary greatly from one training facility to another. Accreditation and certification of service dog providers and service dogs is important from a Veteran perspective because it ensures in part that the Veteran obtains a service dog that has been trained specifically to address the Veteran’s impairment(s). Although there are no accepted national standards for service dogs, organizations like Assistance Dogs International and the International Guide Dog Federation have established certification and accreditation processes to help ensure the quality of service dogs.
Veterans Affairs Canada is working to understand the issues and how they may impact Veterans with disabilities. For example, the Department is funding a pilot study on the benefits of psychiatric service dogs for Veterans with PTSD. Research is also being completed by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs to compare the effects of having a fully trained service dog versus a companion dog on the mental health of Veterans.
This poster aims to outline some of these issues.