VA Northern California Health Care System
We know how important service and support animals are to our Veterans, and how much of a positive impact these companions have on our patients' quality of life. That is why VA Northern California Health Care System has made recent changes to the service animal policy.
What is a service animal? Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as a dog or miniature horse trained to perform beneficial tasks directly related to an individual's disability. Due to the numerous tasks dogs can be trained to perform, there is no specific language defining what a task is. Our service animal policy was revised at the prompting of service animal owners' comments at our quarterly Town Halls. The new policy was written with input from service animal owners and handlers in an effort to make our Veterans with service animals feel respected and accommodated. The revisions to the policy include ADA policy language and were approved and signed into effect on March 2016. The new policy is explicitly welcoming and supportive of Veterans with a service animal and provides clear guidance on the rights and responsibilities of animals' handlers while they are at the VA.
There are a variety of reasons for a Veteran patient to use a service animal. Historically, service animals have been used to help patients with blindness or mobility impairments. In recent years, Veterans with less observable problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression, have started using support animals. Service animals are different from support, therapy, or comfort animals in that support animals do not have to be trained to perform specialized tasks, but instead are there for comfort and cheer. Support animals have been reported to provide relief from symptoms associated with anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Karri Kennedy, an occupational therapist at the VA's Martinez Outpatient Clinic, recommends support animals to her patients. “I know how valuable they are,” she says of the dogs. “Having a support animal gives Veterans purpose and makes them get up and go out of the house.” “Otto has helped my life tremendously," says Robert, a Marine Corps Veteran, of his support animal. "He is there for me, and grounds me in a way that nothing else can.” Here are some guidelines and useful information to make your visit with a service animal more enjoyable: -Do not bring your service animal if he or she is exhibiting signs of illness, infection, open wounds, insect infestation, or if you think the animal will urinate or defecate inside a building. -If your service animal exhibits inappropriate behavior (e.g., barking, growling, biting), please keep in mind that the VA Northern California staff may have to discontinue treatment. -When on campus, owners and handlers are responsible for their service animal. -VA employees are not allowed to supervise, care for, or assume liability for a service animal. The owner/handler maintains responsibility at all times. -There is a specially designed kennel maintained in the emergency department if a patient has an emergency, but no one to stay with his or her service animal.
If you are a Veteran seeking service animal benefits under 38 CFR §17.148, the following organizations can help with animals requiring certification: *Assistance Dogs International *International Guide Dog Federation Or if you are a Veteran, or know a Veteran who could benefit from a support animal, the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) is here to help. VA Northern California Health Care System has partnered with ARF to assist Veterans whose emotional health could benefit from having a support animal. ARF has programs that benefit our Veterans, including waived adoption fees and training. If a Veteran qualifies for the Pets for Vets Program, his or her dog receives free food! For more information, contact ARF at: Pets for Vets c/o ARF, 2890 Mitchell Drive, Walnut Creek, California 94598 | (925) 256-1273.
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