Retired Marine and lifelong New Yorker Matthew Raible knows that service dogs save lives.
On a cold January night, the disabled Vietnam veteran fell while transitioning from the driver’s seat to his wheelchair inside his specialized van. He lay on the floor as temperatures plummeted; the door handle and his keys with an automatic door opener were out of reach.
Raible — who was wounded in the feet, abdomen, hands, shoulder and neck when a mortar round exploded during Operation Allen Brook on May 27, 1968 — said it was likely he would have frozen to death.
But that’s when his service dog, Agatha, sprang into action.
The golden retriever he received in 1992 from Canine Companions for Independence Inc. snatched the keys from the ignition at Raible’s prodding and brought them to him. Raible then was able to open the door to the van and call for help.
Agatha’s actions likely saved his life.
Doctors from the Department of Veterans Affairs say that the benefits of service dogs working with the physically disabled are well-documented. However, there is no scientific literature that supports the theory that they are equally beneficial to those with mental scars.
An attempt to study the correlation in 2011 was suspended because of dog bites and later was canceled over concerns about the health and training of the dogs.
The VA and several new groups, including Canine Companions, launched a second iteration of the study in December. This time around, the study is bigger, more comprehensive and more tightly controlled, VA officials said.
They have vowed to answer the question: Can service dogs improve activity and quality of life in veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress?
“This is a very large and complex study. We just can’t rush it,” the VA’s chief veterinary medical officer Michael Fallon told Stars and Stripes. “We’re going to do it right.”
Two kinds of dogs
The study will follow 220 veterans from three regions in the United States: Atlanta, Ga.; Iowa City, Iowa; and Portland, Ore. Half the veterans will receive service dogs and the other half will receive emotional support dogs.
The difference between the dogs is stark.
The service dogs have five specific abilities based on commands they receive from their owner.
The first is “block,” according to Fallon. When directed, the dog will stand in front of the veteran, offering a barrier and space. The second command is “behind,” which tells the dog to position itself behind the veteran.
The third command is “lights,” Fallon said. When this command is given, the dog will enter a room before the veteran and turn on the lights so they don’t have to enter a dark space.
The fourth command is “sweep.” The dog will enter a room or house and sweep it for people or intruders, alerting the veteran by barking.
The final command is “bring,” Fallon said, so the dog will fetch an item and bring it to the veteran.
Emotional support dogs are not trained for specific tasks but are AKC-certified and provide comfort and companionship, Fallon said. Unlike service dogs, they have limited access to public places. They will also be studied for any potential benefits.
After the veterans receive their dogs, study teams will visit the veterans in their homes quarterly to check the safety of the dogs and the veterans and to assess their impact.
The VA will be enrolling veterans for the next two years, Fallon said. Once enrolled, the assessments begin. The study will take 18 months after the veterans receive their dogs.
The VA has committed more than $10 million to the study, Fallon said, and hopes to have publishable results by 2018 or 2019.
Helping veterans cope
Veterans such as Raible say they know the answer to the question posed by the VA, because many physically disabled veterans with service dogs also suffer from PTSD. He applauded the VA’s efforts, which could pave the way for more struggling vets to get service dogs.
“[Agatha] did more for me than any psychologist could in a lifetime,” Raible said. “I couldn’t cry after seeing so much death. I felt like an outcast. … She put me in touch with my humanity.”
Agatha passed away in 2002 at age 12. Raible is on his third service dog through Canine Companions. He said the dogs have given him independence while he deals with his ongoing medical issues, have helped him connect with people and have kept him physically active.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Sam Cila agrees. Cila lost his left hand and a portion of his left arm following an ambush in Iraq in 2005.
Like Raible, he also had to contend with wrapping his mind around his new reality. He said his service dog — a black Labrador/golden retriever mix named Gillian — played a huge role in his recovery.
“I suffered. I don’t know if it was PTSD or depression or my traumatic brain injury, but I did struggle,” Cila said. “Gillian played a big role in overcoming those challenges.”
Cila said that service dogs help veterans stay active, get them out of the house, and if the veteran is missing a limb or bears the scars of war, they are no longer the center of attention when they enter the room. Their dog becomes the star of the show.
None of this is scientific evidence, however. The study will determine whether a service dog is the answer for vets diagnosed with PTSD or whether other wagging tails will do. The study will track suicide, depression, sleep quality and more.
“We’re optimistic that this could be something really transformative for these individuals,” said Sarah Birman, an instructor at Canine Companions. “I think we’ll find that the answer is yes” on the value of service dogs.
The study is open to veterans of any conflict, VA officials said. Veterans must be 18 or older, meet eligibility criteria and live in an area served by the Atlanta, Iowa City or Portland VA Medical Centers.