First-hand experience with wounded warriors and their canine companions

by Katelyn Somers

Katelyn Somers of Annapolis, Maryland, is a fourth-year veterinary student at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. She graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Somers is tracking in small animal medicine and hopes to work in private practice after graduation.

Katelyn Somers, one of the founding student co-chairs of VT Helping PAWS (Pet Assisted Wellness Service), a student-run therapy-animal program at the college, is pictured with Delaware, the college's first in-residence therapy dog.

During my time in veterinary school, I have learned to have a profound respect for the healing power of the human-animal bond. We all understand the beneficial effects of having animals in our lives (otherwise we would not be in the veterinary profession!), and we know how emotionally connected we can be with our pets. I strongly believe in harnessing this healing power for the greater good, particularly with regard to service animals and animal-assisted therapy.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to dedicate my public-corporate rotation to this initiative. Through a variety of fortuitous circumstances, I was tasked with creating a program that would provide funding for military service dogs. This program would be managed by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF), the philanthropic branch of the AVMA.

The AVMF was in the midst of creating a program that would provide funding for those who cannot afford veterinary care for their pets, including low-income senior citizens and individuals with extenuating personal circumstances. This program would also cover funding for the veterinary care of military service dogs, particularly those used for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other invisible wounds. I was given the responsibility of learning how we, as a veterinary community, can best support those service dogs and their owners.

Katelyn Somers at the AVMA Convention

Rick Yount, founder and executive director of Warrior Canine Connection, his Golden retriever, Huff, and Katelyn Somers at the AVMA Convention in Denver. (Photo by Malinda Larkin, JAVMA)

I spent three weeks gathering information, networking, and contacting as many people as possible to gain ideas for the program. I was introduced to Warrior Canine Connection, an impressive organization that operates out of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Purpose-bred dogs are trained by individuals who have sought treatment at NICoE for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). These dogs are trained to become mobility service dogs for veterans with mobility impairments. After visiting their breeding facility in Brookeville, Maryland, and playing with a litter of Golden Retriever puppies, I left with a huge smile on my face. (Check out their puppy cam and Facebook page.)

The training process itself is therapeutic; individuals with PTSD/TBI are given a purpose by training a dog for a fellow veteran. Warrior Canine Connection works directly with psychiatrists and occupational therapists to tailor treatment for a particular individual. This program harnesses the power of the warrior ethos, which instructs soldiers to “place the mission first, never accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade.” Even if veterans are not interested in receiving treatment for PTSD/TBI, they cannot refuse the request to train a service dog for a fellow soldier. Thus, the treatment process begins without the veteran even realizing it. In addition, this model for a service dog program allows almost 60 individuals with PTSD/TBI to be treated during the training process rather than treating only the service dog recipient. (Bonus: Check out an infographic with more information about the Warrior Canine Connection.)

I spent several days at Walter Reed witnessing the impact of Warrior Canine Connection, and I could not have been more moved. Everyone involved in this program is so passionate. The empirical evidence from the clinicians at Walter Reed is astounding. There are many success stories: fathers who relearn how to interact with their children through training a service dog, soldiers who are once again able to perform daily tasks such as going to a store or another crowded public place, and so on. Veterans with PTSD often fall victim to suicide, and service dogs offer a non-pharmaceutical way to help these individuals. I heard stories from a Walter Reed psychiatrist about veterans who were on over 20 medications, but were still struggling. They finally found relief with a service dog.

During my rotation, it was my responsibility to learn more about what the Veterans Affairs (VA) does and does not cover with respect to service dogs. The VA offers insurance through an existing insurance company, but the coverage is limited to service dogs that are “medically necessary for the rehabilitation or restorative care plan of veterans with permanent physical impairments,” such as guide dogs and mobility service dogs. This does not cover service dogs for psychiatric support. Although the VA does not believe it has enough evidence showing a service dog benefit for individuals with PTSD, it does indicate on its website that it is conducting research to better understand the issue.

Katelyn Somers presented at the AVMA Convention

Katelyn Somers attended and presented at her first AVMA Convention this July in Denver, CO. (Photo by Malinda Larkin, JAVMA)

Furthermore, the VA-provided insurance is also limited to service dogs that are trained by organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI). There are many smaller service dog organizations that cannot afford ADI accreditation but still produce excellent service dogs. Also, veterans who want to apply for a service dog must go through a long and arduous application process with the VA’s Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service.

Finally, veterans who are denied a service dog by the VA may also be denied by the service dog organizations themselves. Many organizations require that service dog recipients have a steady income in order to afford veterinary care. This is a difficult reality. It is understandable that organizations need to ensure the dogs are well cared for, but some of our wounded warriors struggle to maintain a steady job, and understandably so. As veterinarians, we can especially help those warriors who would otherwise be denied a service dog due to financial instability.

After compiling all of this information, I presented my findings at the AVMA Convention in Denver in July. The AVMF generously covered the cost of my airfare and lodging. This military service dog initiative is part of AVMF’s Veterinary Care Charitable Fund, which was launched at the AVMA Convention. Through this program, AVMF will serve “as an umbrella charitable organization to accept donations and make payments directly to veterinarians for charitable care they choose to provide to their clients.”

I could not be more grateful for this opportunity. I met so many passionate individuals during this time, and I was able to attend and present at my first AVMA Convention. I quickly realized that increased veterinary involvement is needed in the field of animal-assisted therapy.  I encourage us all to consider becoming more involved in the AVMF and human-animal bond initiatives throughout our careers. Our wounded warriors need our support!