Stories

What we're reading: Service dogs help veterans cope with sexual assault

Service Dog
A service dog . Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Service dog providers are seeing an increase in applications from veterans who have been sexually assaulted while serving in the military, NPR's Adelina Lancianese writes.

Why it matters: Despite veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma being vocal about the support these dogs have given them, the Department of Veterans Affairs still doesn't recognize psychiatric service dogs as proven therapy for mental illness. Currently, the VA only provides service dogs to those with physical ailments.

By the numbers: One in four women and one in 100 men in service report experiencing military sexual trauma, which includes sexual assault and sexual harassment, Lancianese writes.

But those who have psychiatric service dogs and are dealing with MST say the benefits are real:

  • Leigh Michel, a retired first sergeant in the Army who was assaulted at least three times by male service members between 1990 and 2005, called her service dog her trainer, "getting me to talk to people."
  • Her dog, Lizzy, helps keep her calm through panic attacks and nightmares, Michel says.
  • Lizzy recognizes when Michel is distressed, and works to comfort her.

Be smart: Research shows that there are similarities between veterans who experience MST and those who have combat-related post traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms for both include agoraphobia and antisocial behavior, Lancianese writes. Service dogs are trained for both.

The other side: Despite those similarities, the VA still hasn't recognized psychiatric service dogs as a fix for traumatic stress. It argues that there isn't enough reliable evidence to prove it works and that service dogs may render "veterans unable to function without a dog at their side."

Yes, but: Most recommendations for service dogs come from doctors at the VA, Christopher Baity, the owner of Semper K9 where veterans apply for service dogs, told NPR.

  • "A service dog is a service dog, no matter if the person is blind or assaulted in the military and can't perform normal life," Baity said.