Franken Barks Up A Tree to Help Veterans

By Steve Dale

Newly elected Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) could have chosen any topic for his first effort. Impressed by seeing how a service dog changed the life of an injured veteran, and learning about the great difficulty and expense involved in procuring the dogs, Franken set out to make service dogs easier to come by for vets. A bill he introduced to do just that was tacked onto the Defense Authorization Act, easily passed by the U.S. Senate July 23.

The bill is unique, one which Franken described in a phone interview as laying the groundwork for a “pilot program,” which he says will lead to a study on the benefits of service dogs.

“I’m sure the bill will net a return on the investment over time,” he says.

The idea of helping veterans get service dogs grew out of an inauguration event where Franken met Capt. Luis Carlos Montalvan, an intelligence officer who served in Iraq. Montalvan was injured in an assassination attempt. Today, he walks with a cane and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The Captain told me how he would never be functioning in society if it wasn’t for his beautiful Golden Retriever (service dog), Tuesday,” says Franken. “And he certainly wouldn’t have made the inauguration event because he had become agoraphobic (fearful of being in public places). I learned what Tuesday can do for him. It’s amazing stuff. Tuesday can anticipate and fend off panic attacks. He senses Luis’ breathing patterns and perspiration and then nuzzles him to calm him down. He lets Luis know when it’s time for his medication, and won’t allow him not to take it. And he’ll wake Luis up if he’s experiencing a nightmare.”

Ed and Toni Eames of Fresno, CA, have been a part of the assistance dog movement for decades, authoring books and as founders of the International Association of Assistance Dogs Partners (IAADP). Toni explains that there are three types of assistance dogs: guide dogs to assist the blind (as Ed and Toni are), hearing dogs (to help people with difficulty hearing), and service dogs, who perform a wide array of jobs. All three types of dogs are needed by vets, but while the Veteran’s Administration (VA) already provides many guide dogs, hearing and service dogs are the ones most in demand.

“When we began IAADP, service dogs were primarily trained for people using wheelchairs, and that was it,” says Ed. “Then, we began using service dogs to alert to the onset of the seizures. Then, some folks thought, if a dog can do that, why not train dogs to alert to the onset of a diabetic low, or a heart episode or a panic attack.” The Eames’ new DVD, “Partners in Independence,” demonstrates what all these dogs can do.

Due to the number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with head injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, amputations and spinal cord injuries, the demand for service dogs may be at an all-time high. Adding to that demand are requests from civilians for service dogs who can do everything from alert to peanut products (for children with peanut allergies) to help kids with autism.

Of course, hearing dogs can alert hearing-impaired people when a fire alarm is blaring or the phone rings, and service dogs can help retrieve items for quadriplegics. But service dogs “do far more,” says Franken. “Veterans are telling me how their dogs have broken their isolation. If you have a dog, you have to take out the dog. For people in a wheelchair, it makes them more approachable. Service dogs enhance their independence, making them feel a part of the community. Taking care of a dog is a responsibility, giving them another being to care for and to think about aside from themselves. And then there’s what dogs do for any of us. Dogs raise our moods; that’s been proven.”

The cost of training service dogs doesn’t come cheap. Franken’s bill calls for the VA to train and match 50 dogs with 50 veterans. The training for every other subsequent service dog will be paid for by the VA, with private agencies participating big time to find dogs, train and match them with veterans (as well as civilians). Franken says costs run about $50,000 for each dog, including training of the dog and the partner ultimately matched with the animal, as well as care for the dog and staff expenses during the training period.

“It’s not inexpensive, but the quality of life change for these individuals is worth it,” says Franken. “I believe the program will easily pay for itself. We’ll study it, but I bet there may be fewer drugs needed to alleviate depression and other psychological-related problems, even fewer suicides, which we know is high among veterans. There will likely be fewer human caretakers needed for people with service dogs. And many of these people will be able to contribute to society, where previously they weren’t.”

Currently, the VA does provide reimbursement for veterinary care for guide dogs (those who assist the visually impaired) but not service or hearing dogs " a sticking point for Franken, which he says he’ll work on. He agrees that something ultimately needs to be done to help not only with initial adoptions but lifetime care.

During his Senate campaign, Franken’s family dog passed away. “I know how much dogs mean to a family, and I care about veterans’ needs,” he says. “I’m so glad this has moved forward.”

© 2009, Tribune Media Services, Steve Dale


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