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The Veterans Affairs Department has suspended further placement of service dogs to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder amid concerns that facilities taking part in a much-anticipated study have produced aggressive dogs or inadequately cared for their animals.
VA officials briefed the staff of at least one member of Congress this week on the suspension, which halts placement of new dogs with veterans. Those vets already with dogs will continue in the research program.
Concerns centered on dogs biting children; dirty, cramped living conditions that caused animals to suffer illnesses such as worms and diarrhea; and faulty record-keeping, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.
A VA spokesman said the department notified its inspector general after the issues surfaced and then suspended the program.
"The health and well-being of veterans, their families and service dogs involved in the research study remain VA's highest priority," spokesman Josh Taylor said.
Taylor added that 17 dogs have been placed with veterans through the study, managed by the James Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla., but that further pairings of service dogs with veterans diagnosed with PTSD were on hold until VA's Office of Research and Development drafts a new plan to continue the initiative.
The three organizations participating in the study were Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs of Williston, Fla.; New Horizons Service Dogs of Orange City, Fla.; and Freedom Service Dogs of Englewood, Colo.
Taylor did not say whether one, two or all three facilities were involved in the investigation, but added that Guardian Angels' contract was terminated in August.
Carol Borden, executive director of the nonprofit Guardian Angels, confirmed that VA ended her contract but said she has been given no reason.
"I've heard a lot of allegations but I haven't been given any documentation. We are left to wonder why and we are very sorry for the veterans because these dogs have made a tremendous impact in their lives," Borden said.
She added that the program initially was suspended in January and restarted in July, but then shut down for good after five more dogs were matched with veterans.
New Horizons and Freedom Service Dogs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
VA issued a rule Sept. 5 stipulating which types of service dogs are covered by VA benefits.
According to the rule, published in the Federal Register, VA coverage is extended to dogs prescribed for visual and hearing disabilities as well as mobility impairments, including traumatic brain injuries that cause seizures or affect a veteran's ability to move or make decisions.
But service dogs for mental health disorders are not covered. VA said there is not enough scientific evidence on the effectiveness of dogs to treat and heal PTSD to provide them with benefits coverage.
The VA study was mandated by the 2010 Defense Authorization Act. At least $2 million was included in the 2010 Omnibus Appropriations Act for programs related to veterans' service dogs.
The PTSD initiative, supported by some of that funding, was first proposed by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. Ed Shelleby, a spokesman for Franken, said Thursday that the senator was aware of the problems but would work with VA to ensure the study continues.
"While new pairings of veterans and service dogs have been temporarily put on hold, the study itself is ongoing with existing pairings," Shelleby. said "Senator Franken believes that service can play an enormous role in helping improve the quality of life for many disabled veterans."
Vietnam veteran Wyman Helms credits Diva, a Belgian Malinois he received from Guardian Angels through the VA program, with "saving his life."
"The nightmares have stopped, the flashbacks have stopped, the stress levels are down," Helms said. "I think they are stupid if they stop this program."
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Rick Maze contributed to this story.