April 28, 2022

Not every veteran should have a service dog. Here’s why.

By Danique Masingill

The chocolate labrador was a shadow of himself, an outline of ribs and vertebrae draped in filth-coated fur. A stench clung to him. My colleagues would describe it as the smell of combat, of desolation and decay.  

The labrador was the kind of dog our organization might have rescued. Not all of the animals we take in are service dog candidates; some just need a loving home. But this labrador – we’ll call him Milo – had already been entrusted to us. He’d spent more than a year in our care while training as a service dog. Then we’d entrusted him to a fellow military veteran. 

As Milo ran to me, belying all he’d endured, I realized what a terrible mistake that had been. 

There is a popular narrative that every military veteran deserves a service dog. That this is the least we can do for the brave few who served and sacrificed, who were willing to die for the comforts and freedoms most of us take for granted. 

It is certainly difficult to understate just how much our men and women in uniform give of themselves. Some carry their wounds for years. For a lifetime. Post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt every aspect of a veteran’s life, turning ordinary tasks into impossible exercises. For some, a service dog is the antidote to their illness. It is the tool that allows them to not just survive but thrive.

But it is not for everyone, and the neglect Milo had suffered at the hands of his veteran was proof of this.

We do our best to screen the veterans who come to us for a service dog: Our lengthy application process requires a verifiable diagnosis of PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma by a licensed professional. Veterans must be retired or have an honorable discharge. Even then, we sometimes say no. It is a difficult thing to tell a fellow veteran: You are deserving of help. But this is not the right medicine for you.

Even when we think it is, even with safeguards in place – a stringent training program for warriors and their canines, recertification at the end of year 1, 3 and 5, follow-up care for life – a good outcome still is not guaranteed. 

This is the reality of our industry. 

As best we could tell, Milo and his veteran did well together that first year. When, a few months into their second year, the veteran fell on difficult times, we stepped in to provide assistance. This included arranging free veterinary care and automatic dog food shipments to help relieve the financial burden of caring for a service dog. The last time we saw Milo, he’d grown thin.

In hindsight, these were warning signs. But the reality is there are lives at both ends of the leash. It is our job to do right by them both. Yet sometimes these dual loyalties mean making a choice between the two.

When we faced a choice with Milo and his veteran, we chose the veteran. It nearly cost the dog his life.

We are a small, tightly knit organization. If not for this, if not for our volunteers and employees and the veterinary staff that takes such good care of the more than two dozen dogs in our program, help for Milo might have come too late. But we know enough about each other that Milo’s long absence at the veterinarian’s office was noticed. When I got in touch with Milo’s veteran, what had been the inklings of concern for Milo turned into full-fledged fear. 

When communication stopped altogether, I decided to go to the veteran’s house to try to see the dog for myself. When Milo was finally brought out, I felt relief – relief that he was still alive. Later, the veterinarian told us that Milo’s sheer will to live had saved him.

He’d been starved for at least six months. His body had stopped producing red blood cells. His intestines had begun to shut down. He had a painful infection, but was not strong enough for antibiotics. And there was that smell, the coat of filth on his fur. His nails had grown so long they’d curved downward. The veterinarian had seen strays in better condition. Strays, at least, could occasionally find sustenance. Milo had only access to feces and trash. 

He faced a long recovery. But he would survive. 

This is not a story I want to tell. But it’s a story I need to share. As much as we want our nation’s heroes to heal, as good as it makes us feel to give a veteran who is suffering the steadfast gift of a service dog, it is not always the answer. Even when all the boxes are checked. Even with safeguards. 

With the passage of the PAWS Act  last August, Congress made it easier for veterans with PTSD to access service dogs. Yet it remains a vast industry with no standardization for training and no regulatory agency to oversee it. There is no legal remedy for Milo. It is up to us, at least for now, to police ourselves. To be transparent and hold ourselves accountable. To share our mistakes and learn from them and hope others can, too.

As you can imagine, what happened with Milo inspired a number of changes within our organization, including to our application process. Veterans will now be required to have their service dogs’ weight checked regularly at a veterinarian’s office. They’ll have to re-certify every year and a spouse or caregiver will have to sign an affidavit that they will report any abuse or neglect of the service dog.

We’ve also encouraged our team to raise a red flag at any time if they are concerned about the health or safety of a veteran or a service dog. Milo has taught us that it’s good to trust our instincts. That as an organization founded by and for veterans, it’s important to have people around us who bring different life experiences and perspectives.

As for Milo, we decided the day we discovered him starving and neglected that he would never work again. He continues to recover, surrounded by the love and care he always deserved.

Danique Masingill is president and founder of Leashes of Valor.