Service dog Bear

Ithaca, N.Y. — In some ways, the story of Tom Devine and his service dog Bear is a classic one.

Service dog Bear is ailing

Man meets dog. Man falls in love with dog. Dog gets sick. Man makes sacrifices for an ailing dog that baffle all those unable to understand the love which can develop between Man and Beast.

But the story of Tom Devine and Bear is also a novel one, an urgent one.

It’s about a war vet’s imaginative strategy for sustaining a happy life as a civilian, and his struggle to take advantage of the resources which our country provides to its returned soldiers.

A special bond

Tom Devine a Vietnam veteran living in Yates County, NY, who, at 67, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes. When Devine started looking for a service dog in 2012, he found that demand in the Northeast was so great that he’d have to wait at least two years to be considered.

But then, in October 2012, Devine received a letter from K-9s for Veterans, a non-profit based in Tampa, Fla., suggesting that they might be able to help.

“We contacted them,” Devine told me in an interview, “my doctors from the VA sent them letters saying it would help my condition.”

Devine was matched with Bear, a German Shepherd who had been trained specifically for an owner with PTSD.

“When I’m in a the checkout line at a store – which I couldn’t go into before I had the dog, by the way – Bear will get behind me and look backwards so that no one can get behind me or hit me in the back with a cart. He’s a shield between me and other people,” Devine said.

Tom Devine and his service dog Bear. (Courtesy of Devine)

Bear has another special ability. One night, when Devine was sleeping, Bear climbed up into Tom’s bed and started licking him.

“I thought he wanted to play,” Tom said, “but when I got up to throw him out of the room I found myself feeling light headed and sweaty and when I checked I found that my blood pressure was extremely low. He can smell if my diabetes is out of whack.”

The incredible ability of some dogs to smell aberrations in blood sugar levels has been documented by researchers. In 2008 Deborah Wells of Queen’s University, Ireland, published a peer-reviewed article on the phenomenon, and research is being conducted by organizations such as Dogs4Diabetics and Can Do Canines in order to investigate and develop this talent in dogs.

Although Divine values Bear as a service dog and as a health monitor, he insists that the dog is first and foremost a member of the Devine family. That’s why, in June 2013, as Bear started having problems playing fetch and getting up stairs, Devine wanted to see that Bear got the best treatment available.

“I look at him as an investment of time and money,” Devine admits, “[but mainly] I look at him as my partner. If my wife was sick I’d do as much.”

Fighting for Bear’s health

After Bear started showing signs of immobility and weakness, Devine took him to a local vet who diagnosed Bear with hip dysplasia. She referred Devine to Cornell’s Vet School for further consultation.

The vet team at Cornell, taking into account Bear’s age and overall health, recommended a full hip replacement.

“Many dogs who have hip dysplasia can function by going on medication,” said Cornell Professor of Veterinary Medicine Rory Todhunter, “but service dogs, when they’re young, are expected to be athletic. If the dog is going to need to be strong and run and jump, a total hip replacement is better.”

For Bear, a young, athletic and effective service dog, a total hip replacement seemed called for.

But the expenses of treatment added up. After his initial hip replacement, Bear soon required another. And when there were complications with the second replacement, Bear underwent a third “revision surgery” to correct what went wrong.

Including therapy, Bear’s treatment has totaled $17,000, and counting.

In order to meet the cost of Bear’s treatment, Devine’s wife Marsha set up a donations website on youcaring.com.

“We put up our own savings,” Devine said, “but donations were immense. I wish I knew how to personally thank all of the people who donated.”

Devine reported that about $12,000 worth of Bear’s treatment was covered by donations. Surplus donations for Bear are being put into a fund at Cornell to help veterans get care for their service dogs.

Should the VA have paid for treatment?

I asked Devine whether the Veterans Administration had offered to pay Bear’s treatment, given the dog’s importance to Devine’s mental and physical health.

Devine responded that although the VA is now starting to acknowledge the importance of service dogs, a year ago the VA had told him that there wasn’t enough proof that service dogs worked well for disabled vets.

The VA’s website (last updated in March) states that, “clinically, there is not enough research yet to know if dogs actually help treat PTSD and its symptoms” and advises that “dogs can help you deal with some parts of living with PTSD, but they are not a substitute for effective PTSD treatment.”

Elsewhere on the site, the VA states that although it has not provided vets with service dogs for physical or mental health conditions, it does provide veterinary care for service dogs that are deemed “medically necessary for the rehabilitation or restorative care plan of veterans with permanent physical impairments.”

Pending the results of research on the efficacy of PTSD service dogs which is “expected to take several years to complete,” the VA is considering eventually providing veterinary care for such dogs, according to their site.

However, as far as Devine and Todhunter are concerned, the efficacy of service dogs is clear.

“Experimentally, it’s difficult to prove,” Dr. Todhunter said, “but I think there’s enough anecdotal evidence that these dogs make a difference in people’s lives. These dogs help people live independently. I mean, you don’t need experiments to show the effect of these dogs. Just take the dog away and see what this person can do.”

What’s more, service dogs may also be cost-effective treatment when compared with medication and hospital care.

“There’s an expense involved in the breeding and training of these dogs,” Todhunter said, “but there’s probably a bigger expense in getting vets treatment in hospitals. In theory a dog should also reduce the amount of treatment which it is necessary to give the patient. And they also should be able to reduce the number of catastrophes.”

Dr. Todhunter explained that if a dog is able to sense problems an owner might be having – high or low blood pressure, for example – the dog might help the owner to preempt conditions such as diabetic neuropathy or cataracts which result from chronically high blood sugar.

$ Well Spent

For their part, Devine and his wife are trying to convince everyone who will listen that dogs are effective treatment for veterans.

“I just can’t speak highly enough of the effect of a service dog,” Devine said, “especially for vets that are having trouble getting out. There are a lot of vets that won’t even leave the house.”

But Devine is also quick to avoid reducing the importance of a service dog to any one clear and specific function.

“Dogs are great for everybody. Anybody. But vets especially. And you’ll find they’re just the best. [Laughs] I guess you can tell I’m pretty happy with my dog. And he’s fun to take out because he’s a babe magnet,” Devine said, “Every woman that sees him wants to pet him, hug him. Nobody wants to hug me but they all want to hug him.”

In the end, for Devine, how Bear’s function in his life is defined made little difference to the ultimate decision of whether or not to have him treated. As a protector, an investment, or just as a buddy, Bear deserved a clear bill of heath.

“It was worth it,” Devine said, “every penny of it was worth it and I’d do it again if I could.”

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.