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Service dogs ignite debate across Army posts

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Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2012 12:00 pm

By Colleen Flaherty

Killeen Daily Herald

Fort Hood, along with other posts across the country, has become a battleground in an Army-wide debate on what constitutes a service dog and who needs one.

Soldiers within the 1st Cavalry Division received a counseling statement last month that prohibits most from bringing service dogs to work. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder were particularly disappointed about the announcement.

"We're just trying to fight this because we're really confused," said Spc. Andrew Malsack of the division's 1st Brigade, which includes four other soldiers with health care provider-prescribed service dogs. "We're trying to consolidate different recommendations from our doctors and get sworn statements from our chain of command who have been around us long enough to see the improvements we've made getting the service dogs."

But the service dog issue is a complex one, with some describing it as a nexus of competing interests that involve medical care, civil rights and illegitimate service dog organizations looking to capitalize on a booming trend.

The division's counseling statement, however, does echo new Army guidelines issued in late January after a boy was mauled to death by a service dog at a home near Fort Campbell, Ky.

Before the Army's directive, military service dogs were governed by the same regulations as civilian service dogs - those within the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act defines a service dog as one individually trained to work or provide tasks for a person with disabilities, including psychiatric ones.

The new Army policy also requires that soldiers obtain a prescription for the dog from a primary care provider. Their dogs must be on their permanent medical profiles, and their dogs must have accreditation from Assistance Dogs International partner organizations.

In April, Fort Bliss released an even more restrictive policy on service dogs. The El Paso post requires service dogs as a treatment of "last resort," after all other options have been exhausted. With 25 service dogs, the Southwest Texas post has the highest concentration in the Army, according to post officials.

Fort Hood officials said they are considering drafting their own policy, too.

Helping soldiers

Malsack, 25, was diagnosed with PTSD by Fort Hood health care providers following a 2009-2010 deployment to Iraq. His job was to help clear roads of dangers to U.S. troops. Since getting his service dog, a Great Dane-Dutch shepherd mix named Cosmo, during the winter, the soldier said his anger and anxiety have declined significantly.

His wife, Axli, agreed. "The biggest thing before (Cosmo) was this high level of irritability," she said, in addition to paranoia about new people - even neighbors. "He was drinking quite a bit, too, and all those things have cut back 90 percent since he's had Cosmo."

Sgt. Kristina Alonzo, a soldier in Malsack's unit who served as a combat medic in Iraq, said she benefited equally as much from her dog, an American bulldog named Tara.

"I have really bad anxiety, so she's really good about nudging me and getting me to rub her ears," said Alonzo, 28. "And when I'm standing in line, she sits down facing backward to make sure nobody's coming up behind me."

Malsack, Alonzo and other soldiers said their mental health care providers authorized their dogs for temporary periods that have since expired, and the health providers now say they were not authorized to permanently write dogs into their profiles.

In the January memo, the Army defines "service dogs" as typically being assigned to patients for life. By contrast, "therapy dogs" spend short amounts of therapeutic time with soldiers but don't live with them and remain the property of the military treatment facility.

Although Alonzo and Malsack said the sights and sounds of Fort Hood can trigger their medical conditions, both soldiers have left their dogs at home since the division's announcement. According to the division's counseling statement, only soldiers with recommendations for service dogs written into their permanent profiles can bring them onto post, and those dogs must be accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

The accrediting body's minimum standards mandate that a service dog perform at least three tasks to mitigate the veteran's disability and receive six months of follow-up contact after placement. Application and accreditation fees cost more than $1,100.

Growing interest

Although the service dog concept stretches back at least a century, canines that serve people with PTSD got a poster "dog" in 2011 with the publication of the best-selling book, "Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him," by Luis Carlos Montalvan. The memoir tells of the former Army captain's downward spiral following two combat tours - until he met the dog, Tuesday.

Nowadays interest in PTSD dogs for active-duty troops is skyrocketing, and there's no doubt they make a difference, said Ed Lesofski, a Montana-based activist and consultant for service dogs for veterans.

Lesofski, a Navy veteran who used a service dog for PTSD, said his favorite story about the dogs' usefulness happened around Christmas - normally a difficult time for wounded veterans. An agoraphobic veteran's wife called him, sobbing. He was worried that either the veteran or his new service dog had died. Then the woman's next muffled phrase was: "He bought me a bathrobe."

"(The veteran) went to Walmart in the middle of the night, him and the dog, and bought it," said Lesofski, adding that the shopping venture signaled progress.

Because the dogs can have such a profound impact, Lesofski said it's dangerous for the Army to prohibit active-duty troops from using them during the day. He added that philosophical questions also have risen over the Army overriding ADA regulations, which he called "the law of the land" - and which still applies to civilians working on Army posts.

Certification issue

Another problem, said Lesofski, is the Army's sudden stipulation that dogs come from organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International. The rule dramatically decreases the number of dogs eligible for access to posts.

In Texas, there are only three ADI-accredited organizations, and all focus on mobility assistance - dogs for civilians and veterans with physical disabilities - over PTSD dogs.

Bart Sherwood, owner of San Antonio-based Train a Dog, Save a Warrior, said he'd opted not to become ADI-certified because he trains dogs - usually dogs rescued from shelters - to a wounded warrior's needs, and the accrediting group doesn't differentiate between mobility and psychiatric assistance dogs, thus PTSD-specific dogs might not need to train for the same length of time or in the same manner.

"If a dog drops out of the (seeing-eye) dog school training program, he may be preferable for PTSD," said Sherwood. "You've got to gauge it on the warrior. Sometimes a goofy dog with personality (will work because) that's what makes a warrior laugh."

ADI-North America President Corey Hudson, CEO of the California-based Canine Companions for Independence, said in an emailed statement that the accrediting group was fine-tuning new standards for PTSD dogs and was preparing to release them next month.

Both Malsack's and Alonzo's dogs were trained by Sherwood's organization, a nonprofit that doesn't charge soldiers for their dogs.

More training dogs

The wait-time for a PTSD service dog is long, and the short supply and high demand has longtime trainers reporting that more organizations are entering the specialized field and some are less than reputable.

Rockwall-based Patriot Paws owner Lori Stevens said she's working with a veteran in California who was charged $10,000 for an untrained puppy by an organization in that state. "He was a 9-month-old doodle, and the (veteran's) doctor said, 'Get rid of it, it's too much for you,'" said Stevens, adding that service dogs should never be placed before 18 months.

Stevens' nonprofit organization places service dogs with wounded veterans without charging them. The canines often are trained by female inmates at the Texas Department of Correctional Justice facility in Gatesville.

Locally, Spc. Jamika James of Fort Hood's Warrior Transition Brigade said she was temporarily authorized a service dog by Fort Hood clinicians for PTSD and sought one through the K9s for Wounded Warrior Program/Rescue, based out of Great Woof Lodge and Doggie Day Camp, which opened last year in Killeen.

James, 30, said after she signed a contract, Great Woof staffers told her she would be charged $550 for her dog, a medium-sized female mixed-breed named Chance.

Although James said she wants to keep Chance, the dog was not trained as a service dog before it was released into her care. She said Chance urinates when she's scared, and James thinks the dog was abused before she was relinquished to a shelter and adopted by Great Woof.

James said because she missed ongoing training classes due to work and has an outstanding bill, Great Woof has threatened to take Chance back. "It's not right," she said. "I love this dog. I'm not giving it back."

Great Woof Lodge did not return calls for comment.

Questioning need

Besides quality training concerns, there are increasing questions about the proliferating need for service dogs.

While some soldiers legitimately need assistance from dogs, others may use them as an excuse to get out of mandatory duties such as physical training, said James Hamm, owner of LoneStar Dog Trainer and a command sergeant major with the 1st Cavalry Division.

Lesofski agreed with Hamm: "Some fake it," he said. "We all know that."

Hamm, a longtime dog trainer, said soldiers who need service dogs have been transferred to the Warrior Transition Brigade to seek assistance in getting one.

But within deployable Army units, he added, the service-dog bug can spread.

At Fort Hood, most of the service dogs are within Malsack's and Alonzo's brigade. Alonzo's husband also has a dog.

The three soldiers are being medically retired from the Army and only want to take their dogs to work until that process - which can take up to a year - is complete.

Kristina Alonzo said being barred from her dog during the day demonstrated a lack of understanding of PTSD. She added that soldiers on medication for PTSD aren't told to leave that at home during the day.

"They don't take into consideration our problems," she said, "We're so attached to our dogs and rely on them so much."

Army reviewing issue

Despite the controversy surrounding military service dogs, the issue isn't going away anytime soon.

Col. Bob Walters, director of the Defense Department's Veterinary Service Activity, was at Fort Hood Thursday to discuss service dog policy with post officials, according to the department. He was at Fort Bliss earlier in the week for the same reason. Details about the meeting were not available from Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center.

Sherwood said he'd attended a May 1 summit on the service dog issue in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the U.S. Army Medical Command.

He also said he was consulted by III Corps prior to the Thursday meeting. Army officials are considering developing a program to validate the dogs. Sherwood said the idea might help the military's supply-demand problem.

He recommended a temporary duty assignment model, in which those soldiers who need service dogs report to a central location for a period of at least three months to meet, train and take home military-certified service dogs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs might be exploring this option already. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has proposed successful legislation that funded the VA to explore creating a partnership with nonprofit service dog organizations.

Despite the immediate need for more service dogs, Stevens said soldiers should approach training organizations with caution, and that it is worth the wait for the right dog. Service dogs, she added, cannot be mass produced.

"My biggest fear is that somebody won't do it right," she said. "Something bad is going to happen, and we're all going to pay for it."

Contact Colleen Flaherty at colleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.

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