Veterans & Service Dogs

Veterans may be entitled to benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service dogs, but the same is not necessarily true of comfort animals or emotional support animals. The VA has been providing veterinary benefits to Veterans diagnosed as having visual, hearing or substantial mobility impairments under certain conditions.

In 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a pilot program designed to pair veterans suffering from certain mental health issues with service animals. This pilot program was an expansion of an existing VA effort to help veterans by providing service dogs to those in need.

The 2016 VA announcement about the pilot program announced:

Through the pilot program, veterans with a mental health issue that “substantially limits mobility” would be eligible for consideration in cases where the service dog has been identified as “the optimal way for the Veteran to manage the mobility impairment and live independently”.

This program supplemented the existing VA service dog program which still provides funds and referral services to veterans who have been medically evaluated and are eligible for VA compensation for some service dog expenses.

Veterans with disabilities often choose to adopt a pet to help them cope with service connected issues including physical disabilities and service-connected issues such as PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, depression, and other conditions.The animals in the pilot program and the VA service dog program, in general, are trained animals and not considered “comfort dogs”–we will explore the technical distinctions of those terms below.

There are a variety of options to choose from when adopting an animal that is meant to be more than a pet, and it’s important to know the difference between service animals and comfort animals.

That may not sound like a big distinction to make, but depending on the state you live in, local ordinances, and other variables, a service animal may be able to go with the owner to places a “comfort animal” might not.

What Is The Difference Between An Emotional Support Animal And A Service Dog?

This issue is tricky to navigate; The discussion of service dogs versus emotional support animals might lead some to believe that one is “better” than the other.

This is not true.

The best animal for someone who needs a service dog or an emotional support animal is the one that meets the specific needs of the person making the choice.

The criteria for that will vary, but there are technical and legal differences between service animals and support animals that we will examine here.

What Is A Service Animal?

A service animal is one that has been trained and certified to work with people with disabilities and perform tasks for them as needed. A comfort animal may play an equally important role to someone who needs the emotional support, but comfort animals are not necessarily trained in certain tasks or certified as a support animal.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) codifies this in a 2010 “final regulation” available on the ADA official site which states that effective March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals “under titles II and III of the ADA”. Furthermore, according to

  • Generally, title II and title III entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.
  • A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act labels for “title II” as state and local government services) and “title III” as public accommodations and commercial facilities.

What The Americans With Disabilities Act Says About Miniature Service Horses

The notion of a miniature service horse may surprise some, but there is a legitimate option to use trained miniature horses as service animals. These animals range from 24 inches to 2 inches (measured to the shoulders) and weigh up to 100 pounds.

According to the ADA, “Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable.” For full accessibility, the animal must be housebroken, under the owner’s control, and the facility where the owner wants to go must be able to accommodate the size and weight of the animal. Safety issues may also be a factor.

It seems clear that although a service horse might be a unique concept in some situations compared to the more well-known service dog, the philosophy of the ADA towards miniature horses is similar to service dogs.

Both animals must be trained and be able to work with the owner as intended, but if that is the case (barring the considerations mentioned above) the law treats service horses in much the same way as service dogs.

What Kind Of Work Do Service Dogs Do?

The ADA official site lists tasks that a trained service dog may do for its’ owner, which include but may not be limited to:

  • Calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack
  • Guiding the blind
  • Alerting those who are deaf
  • Reminding the owner to take prescribed medications
  • Pulling a wheelchair, Alerting and/or protecting a person suffering a seizure

According to the ADA, the duties a service dog has been trained to provide “must be directly related to the person’s disability”. Furthermore, under ADA rules, dogs “whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA”.

What About Comfort Animals?

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a comfort animal is not given the same status as a service dog.

The ADA official site states, “Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they (comfort animals) do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.”

The Americans With Disabilities Act does make a difference between a psychiatric service animal (which has been properly trained) and an emotional support animal:

“If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal.”

The ADA adds that in cases where the animal’s presence provides just comfort without the training, “that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”

Department Of Veterans Affairs Benefits For Veterans With Service Dogs

The VA official site describes a service dog in much the same way the Americans With Disabilities Act does. According to the VA official site, service dogs must be trained “to do specific tasks for a person that he or she cannot do because of a disability”.

A dog that does not have this training and provides protection, companionship, emotional support, or comfort only may not be described or compensated as a service animal.

Department Of Veterans Affairs Benefits For Veterans With Guide Dogs Or Service Dogs

The VA official site describes benefits available to veterans who utilize service dogs. The VA’s Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services page has a section devoted specifically to the benefits offered to veterans who use guide dogs, and another section that addresses service dogs.

Department Of Veterans Affairs Benefits For Visually Impaired Veterans With Guide Dogs

VA benefits for veterans who may need or prefer a guide dog include assessments for mobility and spatial orientation. The VA will provide contact information on guide dog schools. Partnering with a guide dog is accomplished through independent, non-VA affiliated programs.

These veterans are eligible to receive veterinary care and equipment through the VA Prosthetics and Sensory Aids program, but VA funds are not available for grooming, boarding, food, or other routine expenses.

The VA Description Of A Service Dog

VA requirements for a service dog include a set of specific criteria. The dog must:

  • Do things that are different from natural dog behavior
  • Do things that the handler (dog owner) cannot do because of a disability
  • Learn to work with the new handler in ways that help manage the owner’s disability

VA Policy On Animal Assisted Therapy And Animal Assisted Activity Dogs

These animals are not considered service dogs under the VA program and are not compensated as such. Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Activity dogs are used “to assist therapists to accomplish therapeutic goals or for social engagement of the patients”.

Since these therapy animals are not provided for the individual, personal use of the veteran and are provided in a treatment setting only, they would not qualify under the VA program to compensate veterans for their service dogs.

Getting A Service Dog With VA Help

Veterans who need a service animal may request one from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA will review the veteran’s case and be evaluated by a clinician. The veteran will be evaluated based on a set of criteria including the following:

  • Ability and means, including family or caregiver, to care for the dog now/in the future
  • Goals that are to accomplished through the use of the dog
  • Goals that are to be accomplished through other assistive technology or therapy

If the veteran’s service dog request is approved, they are referred to Assistance Dogs International-accredited agencies, and there is no cost to the veteran for the service dog or the dog’s training.

Like guide dogs for visually-impaired veterans, veterinary care and equipment are provided through VA Prosthetics and Sensory Aids, but VA funds are not available for the routine expenses of owning the dog including food, grooming, or boarding.

Does The VA Provide Service Dogs?

No. The service animals must come from an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) accredited service dog organization.

The VHA Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service administers this benefit program for eligible Veterans through what the VA describes as a “contracted insurance policy” subject to VA rules and restrictions as provided for in the service dog program.

Service Dog Training For The Owner

The VA does not expect the service dog to get trained without the owner being specifically trained as a handler. The veteran is expected to receive training from a qualified instructor to learn service dog handling skills.

VA Compensation For Travel To Guide Dog Training

The Department of Veterans Affairs may compensate the veteran for travel required to attend this training but the vet must be pre-approved for these expenses. Discuss this option with your point of contact for the service dog program.

What Specific Costs For Service Dogs Does The VA Cover?

The Department of Veterans Affairs will pay for the veteran’s service dog to receive a harness and backpack. Veterinary care is also compensated including prescription medications for the dog, office visits for medical treatment and dental work where the service dog must be sedated.

The dog must have current vaccinations when paired with the owner but future immunizations are covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In some cases, the dog may have a doctor-prescribed diet and compensation for these circumstances are reviewed case-by-case.

The VA does not generally pay for over-the-counter medications including flea-and-tick treatments, store-bought dental products, and dental care that does not require sedation.

How Do I Know If I Am Eligible For A Service Dog Through The VA?

The Department of Veterans Affairs requires all those who receive medical services through the VA including service dogs, to register with the VA Health Administration enrollment section of any VA medical center or online. All service dog requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Military Benefits: Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor (MoH) is the highest military medal a service member can earn. Created in the wake of the Civil War, the Medal of Honor is awarded to those who risk their lives above and beyond the call of duty in “actual combat” against an armed enemy of the United States.

There is a military tradition that dictates all uniformed members of the service render a salute to Medal of Honor awardees regardless of rank; this is one of the unique customs and courtesies associated with the medal. Even the most senior military officer will participate in this tradition out of respect for the sacrifices made in combat by all awardees.

  • Some base facilities offer special parking spaces, plus access to on-base recreation facilities. This on-base access is normally limited to currently serving military members, retirees, and dependents with valid military ID. Those who did not retire, but separated from the military don’t have such access otherwise
  • Recipients are given preferential accommodations at on-base billeting facilities, are provided with special military ID cards, plus access to on-base commissary and BX/PX privileges
  • Added to the Medal of Honor Roll
  • Retired pay is increased by 10%
  • A special Medal of Honor pension of $1,388.68 per month above and beyond any other benefits including pensions
  • A special supplemental clothing allowance of $830.56
  • Free lifelong travel on DoD military aircraft as a priority “Space-A” traveler. This benefit is subject to whether seats are available, hence the “Space-A” designation.
  • Priority level #1 (of 8) consideration when it comes to claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Exempt from co-payments for their medical care.
  • Access to MWR retail and lodging facilities (effective Jan. 1, 2020)
  • Invites to presidential inauguration events and  special recognition ceremonies at the state and local level
  • Some private companies offer special gifts, incentive programs, or access for Medal of Honor awardees and others receiving high military honors such as The Purple Heart. Individual programs and requirements may vary
  • Surviving spouses and dependent children of Medal of Honor awardees may, depending on the state, be eligible to receive added consideration for state education benefits
  • Special military burial honors including headstones with gold lettering and a nine-member team of six pallbearers, a chaplain, an officer-in-charge or noncommissioned-officer-in-charge and a bugler.
  • A variety of non-military benefits. Those include special license plates, licenses, and ID cards with application requirements and availability varying by state
  • Interment at Arlington National Cemetery, if not already eligible
  • Children of awardees are offered automatic appointment to any military service academy they are qualified to enter, without regard to nomination or quota regulations. Normally, a nomination is required to enter a military academy such as West Point, and there is a rigorous screening process

VA Compensation & Disability Pay

The Department of Veterans Affairs does not award compensation automatically, a review of the veteran’s health, medical records, medical history with the claimed condition, and related factors will all play a part in that review.

The veteran is responsible for scheduling a claims appointment. This can be done as part of final out processing, but may also be accomplished within a specified time frame after leaving military service.

Those applying for VA compensation benefits may also be eligible to sign up for VA healthcare benefits and a Veteran’s Health Identification Card. VA compensation for service connected medical issues is not necessarily tied with VA healthcare benefits, but if you have a VA rated disability you should definitely explore the options open to you under the VA health system.

What To Do When Applying For VA Compensation For Service-Connected Conditions

It is best to apply for VA compensation before your final out-processing appointment, but this is not always possible. In any case, service members will need to supply copies (not originals) of discharge paperwork such as the DD Form 214 for active duty military members, medical records, supporting documentation for the medical claim, and a completed VA Form 21-526.

Depending on the type of claim you are making, it may be necessary to get supporting evidence that shows how your condition affects your ability to work, socialize, pursue hobbies, etc. This may come in the form of medical records, but also personal statements from yourself, family, co-workers, etc.

You may also need to show how your condition has worsened over time. All medical records pertinent to the condition, and even those that are not, should be submitted as evidence.

Keep in mind that your family status may play a role in how the VA approaches your compensation claim. If you are awarded a VA disability rating of 30% or higher, changes in your family status may result in changes to your payments.

Never pass up the opportunity to get additional consideration for your condition, especially if you are entitled to more from the VA as a result of having a family.

You will be required to notify the Department of Veterans Affairs in such cases; changes to your claim or payments of the claim in these circumstances are never automatic.

Service Connected Disability Explained

The Department of Veterans Affairs official site describes VA Disability Compensation as a benefit paid to qualifying veterans “disabilities that are the result of a disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service.”

VA rules also allow for compensation “for post-service disabilities that are considered related or secondary to disabilities occurring in service and for disabilities presumed to be related to circumstances of military service” even in cases where such issues are not discovered until after the veteran has retired or separated from the military.

Depending on the nature and severity of the conditions evaluated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, you may be entitled to a monthly payment based on the VA disability percentage rating assigned to your condition.

Some medical conditions can only warrant a 10% rating (such as tinnitus or other hearing-related issues), while others may be rated as much as 50% or higher depending on the condition. Servicemembers with dependents may receive additional consideration for higher VA disability payments.

Getting Help With Filing And Tracking VA Claims

You do not have to apply for VA medical benefits or compensation alone; there are many agencies known as Veterans Service Organizations or VSOs that are authorized to act on your behalf to file with the government. This may be especially important for those who have fears that their medical claims may be denied, or for those who have been denied and want to file an appeal.

Who are these VSOs? There are too many to list comprehensively but the most highly visible include AMVETS, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), DAV, and others. Help may also be available from your state government; check the state department of veterans affairs (not the same as the federal-level Department of Veterans Affairs) to see what services may be offered to veterans who need VA claims assistance.

The VA official site has a list of accredited Veteran Service Organizations you can use to find help filing your VA claim or appealing a VA decision to deny your claim.

VA Disability Ratings: Subject To Review And Not Always Permanent

The Department of Veterans Affairs reserves the right to change VA disability rating schedules, screening requirements, and even revisit the VA award itself to see if the condition has improved or gotten worse over time.

In some cases you may get a letter from the VA instructing you to participate in a re-examination of your claim; in others the veteran herself may wish to have the claim reviewed. This is especially true in cases where the veteran feels the condition is not improving or getting worse.

Do not skip the re-examination process. Doing so may subject you to a more arbitrary decision from the VA.

Do Service Members Need Life Insurance?

Life insurance is one of the most important components of your personal financial plan. Unfortunately, life insurance is poorly understood, and breadwinners’ mistakes invariably cause great financial hardship for their survivors. The primary purpose of life insurance is to protect your survivors from the adverse financial consequences of your premature death.

If service members have no survivors, then it’s unnecessary to buy life insurance beyond the amount needed to pay for any outstanding debts or settle the estate.

If service members are married or have young children, then it’s prudent to have life insurance to insulate the family from financial disaster. service members who want to marry or have children soon should explore life insurance options.

How Much Life Insurance Do Service Members Need?

The general idea in determining life insurance needs is the estimate the family’s actual financial situation in the event of the policyholder’s death. Life insurance is not a measure of devotion to loved ones or a monument to self-importance. It is insurance in case of premature death, and it should be used to protect dependents against undue financial hardship.

If a service member is not alive to provide for his or her family, insurance coverage should be sufficient to enable them to live comfortably. service members should determine the expenses survivors would incur in the years following their death and the income they will receive. By matching income with expenses, policyholders can easily see any short-falls (there may be none) that are best covered by life insurance.

Plan for a basic monthly income for the family, plus additional needs such as education for the children, special medical care for predictable problems, and a reserve for emergencies. As life changes, some of the needs disappear. For example, if the policyholder’s children are grown and through college, there is no need to leave money for the children’s education. Thus service members need to reevaluate insurance needs periodically to make sure the survivors’ situation hasn’t changed. In any case, there is never a requirement to make the policyholder’s family wealthy upon his or her death; buy only the coverage for identifiable needs.

The first step is to estimate the monthly expenses the policyholder believes his survivors will face. If you don’t know where to start in estimating these expenses, a good rule of thumb is two-thirds of your present monthly income for those years when children will be at home, and one-half after they have left.

What Type of Policy Should You Buy?

Currently, an active duty service member may elect to take up to $250,000 of coverage for $.65 per month per $10,000 of coverage, regardless of age. This is very inexpensive insurance for older officers and noncommissioned officers. In effect, the large numbers of young service members make possible low premiums for the older service members.

For this reason, and because it is convertible after service members leave the service, SGLI should probably be the basic building block of a military family’s insurance program. However, military credit unions may offer a better policy at less cost than SGLI.

There are three main types of life insurance:

  • Variable – Has a flexible structure designed to allow greater return on the savings portion of the policy.
  • Permanent – Premiums are paid until your death but also build savings. This type of life insurance offers guaranteed premiums and guaranteed cash values. Some types offer cash value growth driven by the equity markets. While premiums are higher than you initially would pay for the comparable amount of term insurance, over time the permanent life insurance cost may be lower than term insurance.
  • Term – Lasts for a specific period; has no savings component. Term life offers the lowest initial premium expense. Over time, however, term insurance premiums can increase significantly. In the long run the cost may even surpass the cost of permanent life insurance.

Within these major categories, there are many variations that will allow you to meet your life insurance needs.