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A Dog in Service of One Who Served: White River Junction VA Adapts to Veterans With PTSD, Dogs That Aid Them

Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Canaan — Mark Berry and Naya are inseparable.

They shop together at Wal-Mart and Best Buy. They share a booth at Applebee’s. When Berry goes to pick up a few items at a supermarket or convenience store, Naya comes with him. Without her, he would spend nearly all his time at home in Canaan.

“I wouldn’t probably leave the house,” Berry, 58, said Wednesday morning at the duplex he rents on South Road. “If I did (leave), it would be under extreme duress. With all that’s going on, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”

What is “going on” with Berry are the symptoms from post-traumatic stress he developed after serving in the Navy in the 1970s. Naya, a two-year-old German shepherd, is his guide and stabilizing presence during tense situations, picking up on Berry’s emotional state even before he becomes aware of it himself, he said.

When Naya senses that Berry is becoming anxious in a crowd, Naya puts her left paw on his leg, a signal that he needs to go to a quiet place. If Berry begins to panic when someone moves too close to him, Naya leans on his leg or stands on his feet, a signal that he should move away. She even wakes him when he is having a nightmare.

Naya is not a pet, Berry said. She is a “service dog,” an animal on which he relies to function in society. She is as necessary to his well-being as the medication he is prescribed for his PTSD and bipolar disorder, he said, perhaps more so. Which is why Berry was upset to learn from a social worker in July that Naya was not welcome at the VA hospital in White River Junction.

At the time, Berry, who had recently moved to the Upper Valley from Manchester, was stunned.

“I have a $16,000 service dog,” Berry said. “It’s not a pet. It’s not a novelty item.”

Berry took his complaints to the hospital administration and the policy has since been updated so that Naya is allowed inside. She even has a VA-issued identification badge, as all service dogs are required to have now at the White River VA. But Berry’s experience highlights how the VA system is having to adapt to treat veterans with PTSD.

Service Dogs on Rise

Service dogs have long been allowed at the VA hospital for people with physical disabilities, but their use for veterans with mental health problems is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Lanier Summerall, chief of mental health and behavioral sciences at the White River VA.

Inquiries from veterans with PTSD who want to obtain service dogs has increased dramatically over the past year, she said. Although the science is still being studied, Summerall said she has personally seen the value that a trained service dog has for patients with PTSD.

“I encourage it, partly because I’m a dog lover,” she said. “I think they have a lot of emotional acuity and that is the source of emotional bonding. ... I absolutely believe they can be helpful.”

Summerall has received inquiries from both veterans and groups that provide service dogs to them. The company through which Berry purchased Naya, Florida-based Gatorland K9 International, has also seen a spike in interest from veterans and now receives around 20 calls per week, said Jill Pavel, a Gatorland spokeswoman.

As demand for service dogs grows, the VA is having to adjust policies to accommodate them even as it balances concerns for other patients, said VA hospital Police Chief John Richardson.

Inconsistent Rules

As a health care provider, the hospital has to be careful about the animals it allows inside, Richardson said. There are concerns for infection control and the safety of patients. But, like other medical providers, the VA has also acknowledged the value that animals have for improving the lives of patients.

In 2011, revisions to the Americans With Disabilities Act clarified which animals qualified as service dogs, and included those trained for people with PTSD. However, there was no concurrent policy revision within the VA system, Richardson said, and rules and enforcement varied across the 152 medical centers nationwide.

“We found that there was no consistency whatsoever,” Richardson said. “It was from ‘you can’t have your dog unless it’s a service dog’ to ‘bring them in and keep them under your desk.’ ”

At the direction of the hospital’s director, Deborah Amdur, Richardson crafted a policy to standardize how service dogs should be treated.

Now, service dogs at the White River VA must have identification badges when they enter the facility. To obtain one for a dog, veterans must present vaccination records and obedience training certificat ion, and Richardson must meet and approve the animal. A few minutes with the dog is often enough to convince Richardson whether to issue an ID.

“In that couple of minutes, you can watch the animal and tell right off,” he said.

Of the 10 dogs issued VA badges since July, six have been for veterans with PTSD, Richardson said. Naya was one of the first.

On Wednesday morning, Naya stood at Berry’s door ready to meet a visitor. Berry commanded her to sit and wait for the man to enter.

“She’s just going to check you out,” Berry said.

‘Work’ and ‘Standby’

Naya made a complete inspection of the visitor to determine if he was a threat, circling and sniffing him, as she was trained. When Naya finished, Berry commanded her to a spot by his television.

“Place,” Berry said.

Naya has a red vest that identifies her as a “P.T.S.D. Dog,” and when she wears it, she knows that she’s “at work,” Berry said. She doesn’t usually wear it at home, but still remains on “standby,” Berry said.

On Wednesday, Naya stayed in her place by the television, watching Berry and rising only when he seemed to become agitated as he recounted his experience at the VA in July. She remained quiet the entire time. She only barks to alert Berry to visitors when Berry is in another room, he said.

“Naya is a high-caliber dog,” Berry said. “She has been trained to handle being in different environments and to sort it out.”

Berry has had Naya for a little more than a year. He purchased her with his own money from Gatorland, the Florida company, and nearly exhausted his savings. The average cost of a dog through Gatorland is around $20,000, Pavel said, and includes the expense of vetting, training and fostering that can take up to two years. The company works exclusively with pure bred German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, paying careful attention to lineage, Pavel said.

Last year, Gatorland founded Service Protection Dogs for World Peace, a nonprofit that helps veterans raise money to buy service dogs. Other non-profit organizations train service dogs, often mixed-breeds rescued from shelters, and offers them to veterans for less or no cost.

Besides hospital access, another question the VA has been wrestling with is what level of benefits to pay for veterans with service dogs. The VA recently issued a rule stating that it would continue to cover veterinary care and equipment expenses for service dogs of veterans with hearing, vision or mobility impairments, but would not pay for dogs of veterans with mental disabilities.

The VA rule said there was a lack of evidence, beyond anecdotal accounts, to support the idea that the dogs provide medical benefit to veterans with mental illness.

“(W)e do not discount commenters’ personal experiences, but we cannot reasonably use these subjective accounts as a basis for the administration of VA benefits,” the rule said.

Berry said he’s moved past the initial rebuff of Naya at the White River VA this summer, and believes the hospital is the “best in the New England health care system.” But as for how the VA regards service dogs in its benefits program, Berry could not disagree more.

Before he had Naya, Barry was in and out of VA hospitals regularly. During one 18-month period, between 2010-2012, he was admitted to VA facilities 20 times, he said. In the year that he’s had Naya, he’s been admitted just three times. He’s able to function in ways that medication alone never allowed .

“Having Naya has been a godsend,” he said. “She’s worth every penny.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or

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