In Breckenridge, veterans advocates tout healing benefits of service dogs
On Thursday, a liaison from Sen. Cory Gardner’s office, R-Colo., will meet in the Breckenridge Town Hall with spokespeople from Florida and New Jersey to talk about reimbursing service dog use for veterans. A group of representatives from Connecticut is also making the trip, including Carolyn Sires, an advocate for vets, and her dog Blue.
Breck is the next stop for Sires and Blue, a trained service dog. The pair are traveling to promote the mental and physical health benefits of veterans using service dogs. Sires and Blue, along with several retired military officials and their service dogs, met with Sen. Al Franken, D- Minn., in his office in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Blue also escorted veterans to the inauguration ceremony. His training as a service dog enables him to sense anxiety from vets and help keep them calm.
“We’re only human, we can only speak for the dogs, but they do a better job than humans and that of all the human therapies that we’ve offered, these dogs are spectacular,” Sires said.
Sires has been working with service animals for the past 20 years. She started by working with horses and then transitioned to dogs five years ago. Unlike with dogs, interactions with service horses have a Current Procedural Terminology code and are covered by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Codes are given to various medical and therapeutic procedures that have been tested scientifically to prove their effectiveness. The code allows for reimbursement through insurance policies. Sires said that there are studies showing how beneficial service dogs are, but that there hasn’t been enough momentum to help get the requirements in place to have expenses covered by the department.
There are several equine centers throughout the United States that provide vets with an alternative form of therapy.
“(Veterans Affairs) used to pay for service dogs as medical assist devices and then they stopped doing that for a while, but it seems to be that they’re very, very interested in co-chairing the studies to get this back on track,” Sires said. “What’s interesting, we found out that every service dog’s food, and clothing, and shelter, it’s all tax deductible. So the IRS recognizes it as an entity, but we’re trying to get the medical system to recognize it.”
As a physical therapist, Sires has seen the impact service dogs can have on people first hand. Some vets have reported that they use less medication when they have a service dog. She also said that it helps with mental health, making some veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder feel less suicidal. Dogs are trained to help with physical needs as well such as balance, or pulling wheelchairs.
Tom Byledbal, the Summit County veterans services officer, said that in the six years he’s been working in the county, he has not had a request for a service dog. He said that part of that may be because veterans who need service dogs often get them right after leaving the military. Some of the vets living here already have service dogs.
Although the demand may not be high in Summit, Sires said that some states currently have waiting lists for vets wanting to be matched with a service dog. Blue was trained at Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities, a Connecticut-based nonprofit. Sires said that initial training for service dogs takes 1,500 hours. The dog has to go through training and testing to maintain that service level for the rest of its life. It can cost a trainer nearly $30,000 for one dog.
More recently, there has been a trend of people registering their pets as support animals. According to the National Service Animal Registry’s website, a person just needs to confirm they have a psychological or emotional disability, qualify the animal as manageable in public and then pay a fee of $64.95. Sires says that the new wave of emotional support animals is making it more difficult for people using service dogs to travel or have them out in public places because business owners are unsure of the line between support animal and service animal. One of the concerns is how a trained animal, as opposed to an untrained one, will react in a public setting. In addition to working with representatives on funding for service dogs, Sires said they are trying to create awareness around the issue.
“It is getting out of control with the fake pets for the service dogs,” Sires said. “I’ve traveled with six canines on a plane and I can tell who’s a trained service dog and who’s not.”
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