DeSantis pushes PAWS Act passage

Bill would make service dogs available to veterans through VA


U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis joined with officials from the Ponte Vedra-based K9s for Warriors Monday to call for swift passage of the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act.

Introduced recently by DeSantis, the proposed legislation would authorize the Veterans Administration to create a $10 million program to provide specially trained service dogs to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS).

At a press conference held at the nonprofit organization’s new Nocatee training camp, DeSantis joined with K9s for Warriors Founder Shari Duval and Executive Director Rory Diamond to raise awareness of the impact that specially trained service dogs can have on veterans, particularly those most at risk of committing suicide.

“We’re losing 22 veterans to suicide every day and that is simply unacceptable,” Duval said. “We know (the K9s for Warriors program) works. And as a veteran himself, Rep. DeSantis knows the importance of this.”

DeSantis, a Naval Reserve officer, noted that the issue of veterans’ suicide was brought to his attention after meeting with veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffered from post-traumatic stress.

“What struck me was the number of people who were serving over and over again,” DeSantis said. “There’s a small number of people serving repeatedly in very difficult circumstances and that has to take a toll.”

After hearing from veterans whose specially trained service dogs dramatically reduced their PTS symptoms, DeSantis added, he was surprised to learn that while the VA would provide service dogs for veterans with physical injuries, they would not provide them for veterans with PTS.

“Sometimes the invisible wounds,” he said, “are harder to comprehend.”

Government inaction

DeSantis noted that in 2010 Congress ordered the VA to complete a study on the effectiveness of service dogs as treatment for PTS, instructing them to complete the study by 2013.

“Here we are in 2016 and has the study been completed? No,” he said. “And it likely won’t be completed until 2019.”

Despite failing to complete the study, he added, the VA continues to maintain that there is “no evidence” that service dogs are effective in alleviating the effects of post-traumatic stress.

“Maybe if the VA had done its job, they’d have the evidence,” he noted wryly.

K9s for Warriors Executive Director Rory Diamond disputed the VA’s contention that evidence is lacking on the effectiveness of service dogs for veterans with PTS.

“There is a mountain of evidence,” he said, “and K9s for Warriors is leading the charge in a $1 million research effort so the VA can’t deny the fact that these dogs save lives.”

Diamond said that studies of veterans who have graduated from the K9s for Warriors training program found that:

92% reported decreasing or stopping their use of drugs within six months of completing the program

73% reported improved overall health

82% said they had fewer suicidal thoughts

77% reported a decrease or end to their nightmares

Both DeSantis and Diamond recounted being told by veterans who sought assistance for their post-traumatic stress that the VA would simply prescribe drugs that did nothing to quell their fears or suicidal thoughts.

“We have a veterans’ suicide crisis and the VA’s response is pills, pills and more pills,” Diamond said.


The legislation proposed by DeSantis would allocate $10 million of VA funding to create a pilot program that pairs post-9/11 veterans who exhibit the most severe levels of post-traumatic stress with service dogs. Qualified veterans would then be referred to an accredited organization or private provider for service dog pairing and training. The VA would provide $27,000 per dog to the organization to cover the costs of acquiring and training the dog.

In order to maintain their eligibility for the program, veterans would be required to see a primary care physician or mental health provider at least quarterly. The bill also instructs the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study of the pilot program’s effectiveness.

At Monday’s event, K9s for Warriors staff demonstrated some of the special maneuvers their service dogs are trained to use in order to decrease a veteran’s anxiety and increase feelings of safety.

In order to expedite passage of the PAWS Act, DeSantis said he hopes to attach the bill to the Defense Department bill or another piece of legislation likely to move swiftly to the U.S. Senate. If that doesn’t happen, he said, he’ll push for a standalone vote in the House.

“So many veterans have told me, ‘If not for my dog, I wouldn’t be here,’” DeSantis said. “That’s a very, very powerful piece of evidence.”

Diamond agreed. “This is an easy one for America,” he said. “The PAWS Act is the answer.”