National K9 Veterans Day celebrates the loyalty, bravery, and sacrifice of canine warriors. On March 13, 1942, canines officially became members of the Armed Services, with the Army’s founding of its New War Dog Program, more popularly known as the K9 Corps. The dogs underwent basic training and then entered more specialized preparation just as human soldiers did.2 There had been unofficial dogs of war who served courageously and selflessly in almost all of our armed conflicts.3 Indeed, the title of this column is taken from a wonderful article of the same name narrating the heroism of dogs in the 2 world wars.4
The dedication of canines to those who serve is not confined to combat or even active duty. Thousands of military and veteran men and women have benefited immensely from their relationship with service and emotional support dogs.
Before I continue, let me state 2 important limitations of this column. First, I am a dog person. Of course, veterans have formed healing and caring relationships with many types of companions. Equine therapy is increasingly recognized as a powerful means of helping veterans reduce distress and find purpose.5 Nevertheless, for this column, I will focus exclusively on dogs. Second, there are many worthy organizations, projects, and programs that pair veterans with therapeutic dogs inside and outside the VA. I am in no way an expert and will invariably neglect many of these positive initiatives in this brief review.
The long, proud history of canines in the military and the many moving stories of men and women in and out of uniform for whom dogs have been life changing, if not life-saving, have created 2 ethical dilemmas for the VA that I examine here. Both dilemmas pivot on the terms of official recognition of service dogs, the benefits, and who can qualify for them in the VA.
Under VA regulation and VHA policy, a service companion only can be a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks to assist a person with a disability; dogs whose sole function is to provide emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship are not considered service pets.6