BANGOR — A new bill has been signed into law to connect service dogs in training with veterans with certain mental health conditions. It’s called the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act or the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act.
Previously, the VA only covered the cost of service dogs for veterans with certain physical disabilities.
“A disability is a disability. And discriminating one disability to another is really unfair,” said Kathy Hecht of Salute of Service.
According to Melissa Willette of the Maine Bureau of Veteran Services, there are nearly 109,000 veterans living in Maine.
Hecht has been working with more than 500 veterans for the past seven years. Her organization, Salute of Service, helps vets train their own dogs free of charge.
While Hecht said she supports any service to help our veterans, she does believe this bill will increase costs. She said with this new law the Gold Star standard for training the dogs has been raised.
“We used to be able to tell people we could get their dogs trained within four to six months depending on how well the dog and the handler worked together,” said Hecht. “Now we’re going to have to say that it’s going to take eight months to a year plus to get the dogs finished.”
The PAWS Act is a 5-year program expected to begin in 2022. Before the five years is up, officials must submit to Congress whether the program should be extended or made permanent.
“They know when you’re getting worked up, they know when you start to get a little antsy or a little anxious, and they’ll crawl in your lap or sit in front of you and put their head in your lap and try and get your attention,” Veteran Ron Carie said. “They really are man’s best friend.”