U.S. Reps McGovern, Walorski reintroduce service dog bill

  • Congressman James McGovern FILE PHOTO

  • Zoë Vorce, 16, of Orange, who has cerebral palsy and autism, sits with her service dog. Baloo was trained by Heroes, Horses and Hounds (HHH) at its Heroes Boarding and Training in Whately. The nonprofit retrains rescue dogs and horses to be service animals for people with autism and psychiatric disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Zoë Vorce, 16, of Orange, with her service dog Baloo, trained at Heroes Horses and Hounds’ facility, Heroes Boarding and Training in Whately. The nonprofit retrains rescue dogs and horses to be service animals for people with autism and psychiatric disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Saturday, June 15, 2019

When NEADS World Class Service Dogs invited U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern to visit the Princeton facility in 2013, the Democrat representing the 2nd Congressional District met with a group of military veterans benefiting from service dogs trained by the organization.

“I just remember being astounded about the stories they told me about how these service dogs had transformed their lives,” McGovern recalled, adding that many of the veterans had post-traumatic stress disorder and injuries stemming from their service. “Many of them become reclusive. They just didn’t want to leave the house.”

NEADS, formerly known as National Education for Assistance Dog Services and Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, has trained more than 200 service dogs and paired them with veterans in need.

This experience inspired McGovern to draft the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act to offer competitive grants to nonprofit organizations that train service dogs to address veterans’ physical and mental health needs. The free-standing bill was unsuccessful in 2013, but McGovern and others managed to get some line items passed to fund what was essentially a pilot program. It has been funded and expanded on a yearly basis through a bipartisan appropriations amendment for the past five years.

Earlier this month, McGovern reintroduced the bill, which would provide authorization and funding for the next five fiscal years to the program, the idea being that this would allow nonprofit awardees to better plan their budgets and increase their capacity to serve veterans. In 2018, 31 nonprofits across 22 states received funding through the competitive grant process, according to McGovern’s office.

“We need to pass this bill so it is there forever,” he said this week. “This is stuff that should, quite frankly, be covered by the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).”

The bill is bipartisan, as it was also introduced by U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind.. McGovern said he knows Walorski from their time together on the House Agriculture Committee and he described her as “someone who cares deeply about veterans.”

“When our brave men and women in uniform return home from serving, we need to make sure they get all the care and support they need,” Walorski said in a statement on McGovern’s congressional website. “Service dogs play a critical role in helping our wounded warriors recover and thrive. By building on the successful Wounded Warrior Service Dog Program, this bipartisan bill will bring more veterans and service dogs together and make a meaningful difference in the lives of American heroes.”

The bill, if passed, could provide a lifeline to organizations including Heroes, Horses and Hounds (HHH), a Sunderland-based nonprofit that takes in rescue dogs and horses and retrains them to be service animals for people with autism and disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“That would be a huge help, because the biggest challenge for getting service dogs to people is the cost,” founder and president Colleen Campbell said.

She said it can cost $25,000 to train a service dog.

Campbell said an animal can usher a veteran back into society. HHH has donated three service dogs to veterans since it was founded about four years ago and it has worked with other veterans on trainer-owned dogs. Campbell said it is vital to support returning service members, adding that it has been reported that 22 veterans a day die by suicide.

Debra Dougherty, executive director of the northeast region for Canine Companions for Independence, said passage of the bill would provide organizations like hers with the opportunity to receive money for veteran-dog placements. She said CCI’s dogs are trained to perform various tasks, such as retrieving items dropped on the floor and tugging open doors. Dogs, Dougherty said, can also be very soothing and calming for people.

She said it can cost more than $50,000 for her organization to train a service dog.

McGovern said veterans deserve the assistance they can get from service animals, adding that the veteran suicide rate is “through the roof.”

“We can help prevent those types of tragedies and we can help people heal and we can help people get back to their normal lives,” he said.

Text of the bill can be seen at bit.ly/2XFpWUp.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.