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Congress is about to order the Veterans Affairs Department to open its facilities to service dogs that accompany veterans. But the policy lawmakers have written is more restrictive in some cases than the rules already in effect.
The service dog provision, included in an omnibus veterans' bill, requires VA to give access to service dogs that were trained by an organization that has been accredited by another organization that evaluates guide dogs and service dogs.
Current rules in place for most VA facilities do not require a dog to have come from an accredited trainer, only that the dog owner certify the dog has specific training to assist them.
The bill, HR 1627, passed the Senate on Wednesday and is expected to be taken up by House next week.
The new law would not prevent VA from having more liberal rules, but it could lead the department to scale back on service dog access — especially because there have been reports from some VA facilities of dogs, purported to be trained, trying to attack people, sources said.
Additionally, VA officials have discovered it is easy for a dog owner to buy an identification card and vest for their dog and claim it is a "registered" service dog, when the dog actually received no professional training.
Christina Roof, a veterans' advocate who has worked for years on service dog rules for military and veterans facilities, said she worries about what might happen "to people who have been going to VA for years whose dog did not come from an accredited trainer."
Roof said this restriction in the final compromise bill was added late in the process, apparently during negotiations with VA.
Even with the change, Roof said a law allowing access to veterans' facilities for service dogs is a step in the right direction. "I strongly believe disabled veterans using service dogs must have the same access rights to VA care and facilities as currently afforded to blind veterans using guide dogs," she said, adding that a uniform policy across VA will avoid confusion.
Helen Cariotis, president of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, Inc., one of the nation's oldest organizations for certifying trainers, said she is aware of only two organizations that accredit service dog training, the International Federation for Guide Dogs, which deals almost exclusively with helping the blind and vision-impaired, and http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/assistancedogproviders.php">Assistance Dogs International, which accredits other service dogs.