Currently, psychiatric service dog programs for veterans do not receive financial assistance from the government. This includes programs that train dogs to help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or military sexual trauma.
According to the Veteran Affairs Department, only service dogs who perform services dealing with visual, hearing or mobility impairments are offered financial support, which includes “assistance with veterinary care, travel benefits associated with obtaining and training a dog, and the provision, maintenance, and replacement of hardware required for the dog to perform the tasks necessary to assist such veterans.”
Without assistance from the Veteran Affairs Department, service dogs are incredibly difficult and expensive to come by. This leaves veterans who suffer from these ailments without the option to use pet therapy to cope successfully with their symptoms.
The exclusion of psychiatric service dog programs from receiving financial assistance is what inspired Merrick Pet Care, K9s For Warriors and the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, College of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University to come together to work towards their recognition as qualified service dogs for pet therapy.
As the CEO of Merrick Pet Care, Greg Shearson, explains, “We know these specially trained service dogs give warriors suffering from PTSD a new ‘leash’ on life, and with Merrick’s help, we are now going to be able to scientifically validate this particular treatment’s success. With this evidence, we hope to increase political and financial support of trained service animals as an effective treatment intervention for PTSD.”
K9s For Warriors Mission to Get Canines for Veterans
K9s For Warriors is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides service dogs to post-9/11 military veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma. Once an applicant has been accepted into their program, they are paired with a dog that fits their needs. The two receive 120 hours of hands-on training with professional canine and warrior trainers to prepare them for the outside world.
Tahoma Guiry, Chief Marketing Officer of K9s For Warriors, explains, “There is an extensive and thorough application process to ensure that each warrior-dog team is optimally matched. We take into account the height, physical limitations, lifestyle and personality of each veteran to make sure we find the most suitable canine partner for them.” Currently, Guiry says, “K9s For Warriors has successfully paired 367 canines for veterans suffering from PTSD who served our country post-9/11.”
While K9s For Warriors is focused on providing post-9/11 veterans with psychiatric service dogs, they are also extremely dedicated to the dogs that come through their program. Guiry explains, “90% of the canines for veterans are procured from shelters and other rescue organizations. The remaining dogs are donated by private donors or breeders to meet special criteria, such as a veteran needing a hypoallergenic dog.” Once a dog enters the K9s For Warriors program, they will never have to wait for a home again. Guiry points out, “Any dog that graduates from our program has a forever home with us. If for any reason a veteran is unable to care for their dog, we will always take the dog back and ensure it is cared for.”
Not all dogs in the program are paired with a veteran. Sometimes, a dog may be deemed unfit because they are too active, responsive to stimuli or shy. However, this does not mean they don’t make great family pets. These dogs are highly adoptable and well-trained, making them a wonderful addition to any family. To help these dogs find their forever homes, K9s For Warriors created a Facebook page dedicated to facilitating their adoption.
Merrick Pet Care and K9s For Warriors
Merrick Pet Care took notice of K9s For Warriors’ impressive work with PTSD therapy dogs and knew they wanted to get involved. So in July of 2015, Merrick Pet Care announced their partnership with K9s For Warriors. Shearson explains, “K9s For Warriors and Merrick Pet Care have joined together to demonstrate the effective role service dogs play in the treatment of PTSD among American military veterans.”
Merrick Pet Care currently provides K9s For Warriors with all the dog food and treats they use during training, so these PTSD therapy dogs can be at their best for their future warrior companions. They also have introduced a line of dog food specifically designed to bring awareness to the work of K9s For Warriors. Shearson explains, “Hero’s Banquet recipes are a part of Merrick’s Backcountry line, which was introduced in 2015 and continues to be the fastest-growing ancestral canine diet in pet specialty. The Merrick Backcountry Hero’s Banquet recipes include a protein-packed kibble with freeze-dried raw meat pieces mixed in; a complementary stew; and a meaty soft and chewy dog treat.”
Ongoing Research on Service Dogs and PTSD
Merrick Pet Care’s involvement with K9s For Warriors does not end there. They have been a huge advocate and supporter of the ongoing research efforts to support the use of service dogs for pet therapy in the treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries among veterans. Shearson explains, “There is currently no comprehensive evidence to support the validity of service dogs as an effective therapeutic intervention for veterans diagnosed with PTSD or their families, and we’re hoping to change that.”
Merrick Pet Care has committed $250,000 to complete clinical research led by the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond that would delineate the effects and role that service dogs have in the treatment of PTSD among military veterans. Leading the research efforts is Dr. Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, College of Veterinary Science, Purdue University. Dr. O’Haire says, “We are extremely grateful for the support from Merrick Pet Care, which has made the completion of this project possible. They are enabling us to conduct a comprehensive, prospective clinical trial on the efficacy of animal therapy for military members and veterans with PTSD. We hope to continue to partner with Merrick Pet Care to support strong science behind the human-animal bond.”
While the first publication of the study’s findings will be released soon, a second study is underway that will take 2 years to complete. This second study is funded by the National Institutes of Health, WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition and Merrick Pet Care. Through these clinical studies, Dr. O’Haire explains, “We hope to give a voice to military members through science. We hope that this will enable clinicians, veterinarians and policy makers to understand the potential effects of PTSD therapy dogs.”