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Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members (PAWS)

The PAWS Act requires VA to conduct a five-year pilot program to provide canine training to eligible Veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an element of a complementary and integrative health program. The Alaska VA Healthcare System is one of five PAWS Pilot sites. PAWS is a pilot program at the Alaska VA Healthcare system that provides Veterans with PTSD the opportunity to train service dogs for fellow Veterans. This program may increase the sense of purpose and self-worth of Veterans through the altruism of helping others.

PAWS Pilot Anchorage
PAWS Coordinator

Ashley O'Connor PhD, LCSW

PAWS Program Coordinator

VA Alaska health care

Phone: 907-257-4709

Email: ashley.oconnor@va.gov

What to expect

The canine training sessions are conducted alongside a partnership with an Anchorage Service-Dog Organization for the purpose of the pilot.

This is an outpatient program. Participating Veterans will attend training sessions at the Paws for Purple Hearts Service-Dog Organization in Anchorage.

Who can participate

You may participate in the program if you meet the following eligibility criteria:

  • You're a Veteran with PTSD, and
  • You're enrolled in a VA medical center pilot site, and
  • You've had an appointment with primary care, mental health, whole health, recreation therapy, or social work within the last 3 months, and
  • You've been screened and approved by a VA evaluating provider

Referral Process

After you're referred to the PAWS Pilot Program, you'll first have a screening appointment with a VA clinician from the PAWS pilot team to make sure you meet the eligibility requirements. Once confirmed, you will be referred to the next available canine training group.

Frequently asked questions and answers

Click each section below to learn more about the program.

Do I have to engage in or remain engaged with VA mental health care to participate in the PAWS Pilot Program?

No. You don't have to be engaged in mental health care to participate in the pilot. You must remain engaged with VHA primary care, mental health, whole health, recreation therapy, or social work by having at least one appointment every 3 months (until you've completed the canine training).

How will I know if I am approved to participate in the pilot?

You will be notified by VA staff responsible for the pilot program site if you're approved to participate.

Am I eligible for beneficiary travel to the canine training sessions?

No. You will not be eligible for beneficiary travel for the canine training sessions since there will be no documented medical visit associated with this training.

How will I know where to go and when to attend the canine training sessions?

VA staff will contact the service dog organization to inform them of your eligibility for the pilot. You will be contacted by phone or email, and given start date information and directions to the service dog training facility.

Will I be able to train my own service dog?

No. This training does not involve training your own service dog. You will be assisting in training candidate service dogs that, in most cases, will be for another Veteran.

Can I bring my service dog to the training group?

No. This training does not involve training your own service dog.

How many training sessions will I need to attend?

This is an 8-week program with one canine training session per week for 8 consecutive weeks. Session length will be approximately 2 hours.

Am I expected to attend all PAWS canine training sessions?

Yes. The canine training sessions are sequential, so it's important to attend all sessions.

What if I get sick, hospitalized, or must miss a session for another important reason?

Please contact the service dog organization as soon as possible and explain why one or more sessions will be missed.

What if I miss two sessions in a row?

If you miss 2 sessions in a row, especially the first 2 sessions, you will not be able to participate in the current training session. You'll have to wait until there is availability in another canine training session at the service dog organization’s discretion.

Who will be in the group?

Groups of 6 Veterans will begin and finish the entire 8-week program together in Anchorage.

Will my participation in the PAWS Pilot Program impact my service connection?

No. Participation in this program should not impact your service connection status.

What happens if a group is not available when I'm able to participate in the program?

Participation in the pilot program will be on a first-come, first-served basis.

Once accepted into the program, can I be dismissed?

Yes. If you're disruptive, aggressive, or display other inappropriate behavior, like being under the influence, you may be dismissed immediately by the service dog organization while in their class on their property.

You may also be dismissed by VA if we believe it's not in your best interest to continue. You will be referred to the Alaska VA pilot staff who will reassess you for continued eligibility for the PAWS pilot program. This is to ensure that all Veterans and animals are safe.

At the end of the training, will I be a certified service dog trainer?

No. This is not a job training program. You will assist in training candidate service dogs for others by helping the dogs learn several commands: social interaction, physical connection, retrieve, and mobility.

VA is eager to assess potential benefits for Veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD participating in the training of candidate service dogs.