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VA aims to improve canine program

VA aims to improve canine program

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Associated Press

HOUSTON -- The drone of helicopters still haunts William Callahan decades after Vietnam combat left him paralyzed, but he said government bureaucracy stood in the way of getting the one thing that made the echoes stop and kept him independent: a service dog.

It took four years and giving up on a Veterans Affairs canine program for Callahan to find Taylor, a specially trained Labrador retriever.

Although the canine program's Web site says it "routinely" gives veterans service dogs, the program's director, Neil Eckrich, said only two dogs had been paired with veterans since Congress authorized the program in 2001. Eckrich acknowledged difficulties with the program, including the time it took to conduct studies on the dogs' benefits and problems in promoting the service.

Finally, eight years after the program began, many hope it will start finding homes for the four-legged companions that can help disabled veterans be more independent and deal better with post traumatic stress syndrome. The VA is working on improving the program, and increasing funding for such programs is getting bipartisan support in Washington.

When Callahan, 63, began trying to find a service dog in 2004, he said, his local VA office told him that the program didn't exist. He eventually turned to one of the more than two dozen nonprofit groups in the U.S. that train dogs for injured veterans.

Paralyzed from the waist down and facing the diminishing use of his arms and hands, Callahan said, he needed assistance picking up items from the floor and someone to seek help in emergencies.

He credits Taylor with enabling him to stay in his Houston-area home and calming him when images from the war flash through his mind.

"He is the only friend I have that I know for sure loves and protects me," Callahan said, leaning in to kiss Taylor. "Sometimes I wonder whether I'm giving enough to him for all he gives me."

Several other disabled veterans said they, too, ran into walls and misinformation when looking for help to get a service dog. Some said phone calls were never returned and local VA offices ignored their repeated inquiries.

"I was told they would not fund a dog, they had never refunded a service dog and were unwilling to make my case," Robert Schwartz said of his conversation with his VA office in 2005.

Schwartz, 68, broke his back in Vietnam and was paralyzed from the waist down. After his wife died, he said, an assistance dog was the only thing that kept him out of a nursing home. Living on Kelleys Island, Ohio, in Lake Erie he also was looking for a dog that could help him on his boat.

Congress authorized but did not require the VA to provide service dogs as part of a 2001 law that enhanced veterans' health care. Money for the program was to come from the VA's general fund.

For nearly six years, the agency studied ways to provide the dogs but concluded that the lack of standards and research supporting the medical benefits was a huge deterrent.

"We have to take into account the veteran's health, the dog's health and taxpayer money," Eckrich said. "There were no standards that apply to training, to the dogs and to the trainers."

Baylor School of Medicine researcher Diana Rintala worked with the VA in a 2004 study that found no physical evidence of improvement when a service dog was used. Researchers tested the difficulty participants had in doing tasks with and without the dog and measured perceptions of improvement and satisfaction and negative aspects of having a dog.

The study was too narrow to make significant assessments about the physiological and psychological impact of a service dog, Rintala said.

"We didn't measure the more emotional aspects of this," she said.

Assistance Dogs International accredits and sets training quality standards for assistance-dog organizations worldwide. Corey Hudson, president of ADI North America, said the group recommended that the VA financially partner with ADI or help veterans pay for expenses.

No program developed from those talks, but Eckrich said he hoped the group would help with promoting the VA service.

Donations allow nonprofit groups to train dogs without government help, but the organizations often have waiting lists and sometimes veterans have to travel to get the dogs and pay other fees.

Those expenses, along with veterinarian bills, put the cost of maintaining a service dog at $600 to $1,000 a year, said Hudson, chief executive of Canine Companions for Independence in California. Veterans on fixed incomes have a harder time keeping up, Callahan said.

The issue of service dogs is again drawing attention in Congress. Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison proposed a $15 million earmark in the VA's budget next year for the service dog program. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and Florida Rep. Ron Klein, both Democrats, are sponsoring two bills to start a pilot program through the VA to pair service dogs with veterans -- mostly those with mental health concerns -- and to establish a grant program for non-profits who provide them.

Chris Maddiford of Boston said he went through every program the VA offered to manage his post traumatic stress disorder after he was wounded in Afghanistan in 2003. It wasn't until he met AJ, his black Labrador retriever, that he cut down on his medications and was finally able to sleep.

Maddiford wants the VA to pair more veterans with service dogs to give returning troops the peace he's found.

"I've done everything they've told me and this is finally something that has worked," he said. "I hope the VA follows through and does this."

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