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ARF’s Pets and Vets Program Saves Both Ends of the Leash

After dedicated service to the United States, many veterans experience challenges readjusting to civilian life due to service-related mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression, and anxiety. Meanwhile, in public animal shelters across the country, an estimated 1.5 million dogs and cats are euthanized every year due to a lack of adopters. Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation’s Pets and Vets program is tackling these two major challenges facing the nation with one program.

ARF identifies dogs in overcrowded shelters that might have the necessary qualities to change a veteran’s life. These dogs are carefully selected and matched with veterans in need. Like trusted battle buddies, they train together under the guidance of a skilled instructor for approximately a year to graduate as service dog teams, all at no cost to veterans. In December, 21 veterans and service dog teams graduated — a new record for ARF’s Pets and Vets program. 

Although ARF’s program has had tremendous success locally, there are many veterans and dogs in need across the country. To serve more veterans who could benefit from a psychiatric service dog, ARF is currently building a new Pets and Vets training center and partnering with other animal shelters to replicate the Pets and Vets model across the nation. 

Additionally, ARF is supporting the bipartisan-backed Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act (HR 4305). If passed, the legislation would fund a Department of Veteran Affairs pilot program for veterans with service-related mental health challenges to train and receive benefits of psychiatric service dogs.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), sought expertise gained from ARF’s Pets and Vets program while drafting the legislation. 

The bill sets up the VA to promote nonprofit programs similar ARF’s Pets and Vets program. In a significant shift from previously proposed legislation, the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act includes emphasis on veterans participating in positive reinforcement training of their own service dogs. 

“We’re happy to see the benefits of dual training in this legislation, as it greatly enhances confidence, a deeper bond with the service dog, and a sense of purpose and accomplishment,” said Elena Bicker, ARF executive director. “We’ve seen amazing results and are proud to support future programs designed to benefit the well-being of both veterans and dogs.”

The bill is pending in the House Committee of Veterans’ Affairs. This hybrid legislation reconciles two widely supported bills from the 115th Congress: Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (HR 2225) and Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers Act (HR 2327). Some of the current 38 co-sponsors include Gil Cisneros (D-CA), Kathleen Rice (D-NY), John Rutherford (R-FL), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Michael Waltz (R-FL), and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI).

If you know of a veteran with service-related mental health challenges who could benefit from a service dog, or would like to support the program, visit to learn more. 

At the core of ARF’s mission is the rescue of dogs and cats who have run out of time at public or overcrowded shelters, giving them a second chance at life. Since 1991, ARF has matched more than 42,000 pets with loving homes. Launched in 2011, ARF’s innovative Pets and Vets program is saving both ends of the leash and helps fulfill ARF’s mission of People Rescuing Animals … Animals Rescuing People by pairing veterans with PTSD with carefully-selected rescue dogs and providing free service dog training.

Erin Thompson is Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation’s marketing manager. Her career in communications and marketing the benefits of service dogs began in 2011. Her passion for animal welfare brought her to her role with ARF in 2019. She finds ARF’s life-saving mission — People Rescuing Animals … Animals Rescuing People — inspiring.

Shelter Zone features a shelter and rescue group each month. If you would like to contribute, contact

Top photos shows Ethan with service dog Finnegan.

Main article photo by: Courtesy ARF