Service dogs help vets with PTSD

10-year old Rottweiler

Image via Wikipedia

In today’s Toronto Star, Barbara Turnball (disabled after a shooting in a variety store hold-up) writes about how service dogs are being trained to do far more than sniff out drugs or lead the blind. Now they can sniff peanuts and other nuts that trigger lethal allergy reactions in a young girl, who has been housebound most of her life because her allergens put her at high risk, or detect various cancers. But what caught my attention the most is their new use to help veterans suffering from PTSD, and the vet Barbara interviewed was Master Cpl. David Desjardins, whom we all know on Facebook and who responds to Homecoming’s blogs.  

Dave has been advocating for better treatment of veterans, and his experience is based on tours of duty in Bosnia, Honduras, Bosnia again, and then, eight-months in Afghanistan which left him with PTSD.

Barbara writes, “He returned from Afghanistan in 2001 and retired from the forces in 2010 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder three years before. His condition was marked by massive mood swings — so depressed one minute he couldn’t leave the house, so angry the next he kept his wife, Darlene, and three children, Christopher, Kourtney and Kayleigh at arm’s length, so frightened of triggering a bomb he couldn’t step on the grass.

“Medication and therapy helped. But when a hip injury during a training exercise put him in a wheelchair two years later it was another major reversal of fortune.

“Then, 18 months ago — almost a decade after his return from Afghanistan — unexpected help arrived with four legs and a wet nose.

“Maggie is a two-year-old rescued Rottweiler with a dual assignment. As Desjardin’s post-traumatic stress dog she has been trained to wake him up if he is having a nightmare. In public, she ensures he has sufficient space around him, a frequent concern for people suffering PTSD. (Psychiatric dogs can also be trained to shake their owners from flashbacks and stop panic attacks before they start.) As his mobility-service dog, she gives him support when he stands up and goes up or down stairs.”

As a result of Maggie coming into Dave’s life, he has recaptured much of himself and brought fun and happiness back into his and his family’s life.

In the United States, Barbara reports that the Senate has “earmarked $2-million to study the benefits of service dogs to physically and emotionally damaged veterans — and programs are opening throughout Canada and the U.S.”

One training centre is here in Ontario — in Cambridge. It’s run by the National Service Dogs originally created to help autistic children become more socially adapt. Now they have added the Skilled-Companion Dog for Veterans program to their training services.  The  K-W Poppy Fund donated $5,000 to the program that is providing veterans in the London area with dogs to help them with PTSD symptoms. With their new dog companions, combat traumatized vets can expect to re-enter civilian life with productive and happy results.

Writes Barbara: “Mara Engel, who heads the program, says she’s in no doubt that dogs will prove to be a positive force for emotionally scarred soldiers.”

It’s definitely a program we can see will give our vets immediate relief, where so many other services have either failed or taken so long to be awarded to our vets needing special help that it’s been too late to save the few who have committed suicide out of despair.

So, if any of you have more information about similar service-dog programs across the country, please share the information with us. We welcome suggestions on how we can support or help grow more PTSD programs like this.

About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan vets, Canadian Armed Forces, federal government, Homecoming Vets, post traumatic stress disorder, suicide, veterans' affairs, veterans' assistance programs and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Service dogs help vets with PTSD

  1. Colonel P@ says:

    While I was the Veterans Ombudsman, VAC asserted that there was no medical evidence that service dogs are of any therapeutic value! That may be so, but all that shows is that we must blindly accept the conventional wisdom in the medical community! There is enough first hand experience to prove beyond a doubt the efficacy of service dogs for improving the lives of OSI victims and their families, another example of the callous obstructionism of VAC!

    • Bonnie Toews says:

      Well then, it looks as if this is something else we’ll have to figure a way to support on our own. I’ve searched through many websites to add to the blogroll here. As helpful and promising as many are, they require dedicated hands-on interaction with skilled experts. Having a “service” pet companion may be the easiest solution to pursue for our vets with PTSD. We just have to figure how to buy a trained service dog for each vet.

      • David Desjardins CD says:

        Actually Bonnie, the program that I got involved with,, although a “pilot” project which was later dropped due to lack of scientific evidence (a whole other rant, for a later time), and cost, (see previous statement), is still underway within Ottawa. Right now we are admittedly, running on a strictly volunteer basis, absorbing cost with charity or out of our own pockets, but we will not let this program die. It has become too important for all of us.

        We recently me with Mrs Natynczyk, who was instrumental at getting the program off the ground to begin with. When she had heard funding was cut, well….lets just say she wasn’t pleased. Also in attendance was Gen (Ret’d) William Leach, who is to become appointed to the Board of Directors for the OSI clinic, at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. This coupled with upcoming educational meetings bodes very well for the future of like programs. The original program was set up to fail right from the get go with zero DND support aside from one email that was sent out. On our own, we are seeking out troops and veterans that want to participate.

        Granted, the more interest we get, the greater the potential expenses, however, unlike other programs, we are utilizing rescue animals, from the shelters that are facing the threat of being put down. Maggie was one such animal and I couldn’t ask for a more intelligent, caring, gentle, and loyal companion.
        Cost is something we’ll address when we need to and through our own fund raising activities, but for now, we have Maggie, Thor, and Jewel to work with and continue to train, and, the future is brite.

      • Keep us up-to-speed on developments, Dave. Definitely want to help keep attention focused on this PTSD program.

        Bonnie Toews Blog 1: Blog 2: Blog 3: Website: Click on banner.

  2. David Desjardins CD says:

    You beat me to it, Bonnie. I was just called by the author to let me know it finally made print. We’re actually starting to make head way on the awareness front with regard to service animals as another tool to help with PTSD. We have a meeting scheduled the first week of June with the Director of the MFRC Ottawa to brief her, and, her staff on the Courageous Companions program, how service animals can help the troops even if it’s short term interaction during a session. My goal is to be able to get Maggie interacting more with soldiers and vets suffering from OSI’s. The battle of admittance, still exists, however, and, getting people to open up is hard. I can understand this, I was there, but, I understand. Help is there, on two and four legs.

    • Bonnie Toews says:

      This is wonderful news, Dave. Let me know how we can help you further this program.

      Please write about Maggie so I can post it here on Homecoming Vets — how she came to you and how your relationship developed — everything that helps promote what her special training provides and what it has done to help you and your family. Barb Turnball, who wrote the story in The Star, is a very special young woman, who hasn’t let her disability hold her back from pursuing her dreams. I believe she was 18 when she was gunned down in a variety store hold up. First no one thought she would live. Then no one thought she’d ever be able to do anything for herself again because the damage to her spinal cord made her paraplegic, but she persevered. She’s the journalist she always wanted to be.

  3. David Desjardins CD says:

    One correction I have to address in the original article. It was written that I “retired” in 2008, when, in fact it should read 2010.

  4. Allison Lynch says:

    There are no words for what these four-legged angels do for our souls!
    If there is any way that I may get my own dog involved for this particular service I would be very grateful for any information from you.


  5. Mara Engel says:

    Hi Bonnie:

    Just to clarify a couple things. The dogs we are placing are trained in a number of skills specific to the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While they are being placed as companions, which means no public access, they meet the standard of a service dog. If the veteran and clinician decide down the road public access with the dog would be the next step in their therapy we will train the team and certify them. National Service Dogs is an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) which means the dogs are provided to the veteran at no cost and we are responsible for fundraising. The visually impaired are not expected to purchase their dog; nor should a Veteran with PTSD. We have been approached by Legions and individuals within the community to support our program before we even had the opportunity to actively pursue funding. While there are limited studies showing the therapeutic value of service dogs it’s early days yet. It’s also important to understand that in order to qualify as a service dog the dog must perform minimum three skills specific to the individual’s disorder that enables them to function in public. We not only plan on placing dogs with Veterans with PTSD also in studying the results either through area treatment facilities or a local University. One of the few studies on the effectiveness of service dogs is on our Autism Service Dog program. The US has been very proactive in recognizing the potential of Service Dogs to assist Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Veterans apply to Veterans Affairs and if they meet the criteria are approved for a dog and referred to an Assistance Dogs International accredited organization in their area. This is for a couple reasons but mainly a dog from an ADI accredited organization is free to both the veteran and VA and it will meet the legislative requirements for public access anywhere in the US. Also, it ensures the ability and means are there to care for the dog. While legislation regarding the use of dogs as assistive devices in public varies greatly across Canada, organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) meet all legislation. In fact some provinces like Alberta simply state “A dog that has qualifications resulting from the successful completion of a training program delivered by a school or institution accredited by Assistance Dogs International, Inc. has the qualifications of a service dog”. So any Veteran with PTSD or family member that would like to look into a service dog has the right to demand a fully qualified dog. If you are looking for a service dog check the legislation in your province, it may mean you need to go to an ADI accredited organization. At minimum check out the ADI website to get an idea of what the standards are. You should not have to buy your dog. Lastly, this is a form of therapy and you should be discussing it with your treating clinician to decide if this is right for you.
    With websites like yours Bonnie we can raise awareness so that those treating the Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will learn more about the other options available. Thanks!!!

    • Bonnie Toews says:

      Mara, thank you for this full update. I’m concerned that many will miss your comments and am going to post it as a regular blog so that people can read about it and learn how your program works and what they have to do if they want to become a part of it.


  6. JIM BARRON CD says:

    The VAC has asked that we, (veterans with PTSD @ OSICs ), complete various surveys at various times. Most, if not all were very simple and short, using only one side of the page. Why not ask the people who might benefit from having a service dog; the Veterans with PTSD; using a simple questionnaire with a couple of straight forward questions such as:
    1. Have you felt the “need” to have a service dog? If you answered YES, indicate how long you have felt this need.
    2. Would you, as a Veteran with PTSD consider that having a service dog would offer benefits that could not be offered by any person, organization or hospital?
    3. Do you, as a Veteran with PTSD, believe that having a service dog has the potential to prevent suicides, particularly Veterans with little or no support in their personal lives?

    What qualifies a Veteran to be an expert in answering these questions is the simple fact that it is exactly what they already feel a need for. They don’t feel a need for money; they don’t feel a need for a vacation; they don’t feel a need to be ‘singled out’ as a hero or any such thing, because they know that none of these things would benefit them.

    There is absolutely no reason for the VAC, DND, On. gov., Fed gov. or anyone else to spend money and time hiring someone to tell us what we already know.
    A doctor asks his patient questions about his health; not everyone else in the hospital; a mechanic asks the vehicle driver questions about what is wrong, not the guy next door at Timmies having a coffee.

    If you have come this far, I thank you

  7. kendra says:

    my husband suffers from extreme ptsd. we have a dog now that he loves who is about 1 1/2. he found out about matching service dogs to service men and was trying to find info on this. he is wanting to try to find a way to train the dog we have since he is already bonded with her…please help

  8. Flower says:

    First, let me say that I live in the United States. I am a Veteran with a trained PTSD Service Dog and we have been together for two years. She goes every were with me to include work. She was trained to lead me out of a building when I have a panic attack, watch my back, check my house before I enter and turn on a light. She has learned to tell me when I am having a panic attack before I am aware that I am by bumping my leg with her nose. She has changed my life and made living with PTSD manageable.

    • Thanks for sharing this with us, Flower. It is encouraging for those here to know this is a real help, not another theory. More trainers out west and in Ontario are becoming involved with rescue dogs that they feel qualify for PTSD service dog training.


  9. Flower says:

    I am glad to hear that. My Service Dog was rescued from the Dog Pound were She lived for one year before she was selected to be trained as a Service Dog at a local prison. She Saved my life and I saved hers. We do have some problems in the community such as denial of entry because people can’t see that I am disabled. I have even been given a menu in brail at a local restaurant because they assumed I was blind. I am sure that the use of PTSD Service Dogs will expand and will be accepted in both the US and Canada..with time.

  10. I want to say I haven’t read all this site, but am pleased to find it. Years ago a friends fiance & I were discussing child abuse, and counselling. I was a survivor as well as a volunteer counsellor. I brought up the affects of war on soldiers and the affects of those soldiers on families. Questioning it as one of the possible causes for mental health problems or extreme or abusive behaviors upon return home. That there didn’t seem enough assistance for soldiers let alone the families of them. That usually the families weren’t even recognized as in need of support for themselves, as well as to prevent problems in how they raised their children, to my knowledge. His father had been in World War II, which there were many who volunteered in addition to those in military careers, which meant many were released from duty at wars end without follow up support. His father had mental health problems, perhaps PTSD, and many extreme strange behaviors. Once returning from service, he became paranoid, and insisted on as much isolation of the family as was possible from extended family and community for their safety and to hide his condition. Family was a strange experience for them. Other then school the kids and their mother were isolated and unable to find help for themselves or their father. He thanked me for bringing up the issues, as I was the first person who ever spoke out and did so without harsh judgement of soldiers including his father. I was simply interested in cause and affect and helping. He said I was the only one who did that and so he felt comfortable in talking of his childhood.
    I have never served in any military service, but once had a prisoner of war vet, make a special trip and arrangements to visit me after talks with his wife about the couple visits we had and letters, in our mostly pen pal friendship. I held great respect for veterans, and didn’t understand his interest in going out of his way to come meet me. When we got together, he explained the reason he wanted an in person visit is he wanted to meet me and to have the honour to shake my hand out of respect. He’d said he doesn’t talk of it with others, but that even as a trained soldier he didn’t know how he survived being a prisoner of war, as an adult man, and yet I had survived it twice in my life, first as a child and once as an adult. He wanted to know how I did it and yet remained the dignified respectable pleasant well balanced positive person I was. I lived life relatively well and balanced, outgoing and independent for many years. I married a military vet and actually assisted him with his night terrors and the affects of war. I thought perhaps I could learn more and help other veterens. Fast forward twenty years later from the intial discussion, to 2008 and due to what doctors called the perfect storm times 10, happening all at once, in my life regarding stressful events and ill health, saying I had almost every severe stress event listed in their manuals. I suffered and now live with P.T.S.D. and found myself looking up sites to learn what I could from Veterens who suffer the condition. I found this site when looking up information about service dogs, having gotten the idea that they help with other conditions and perhaps they could help me too. Wanting to see what programs there are and how they work, to see if perhaps a lab doodle or golden doodle could be trained, as they are said to cause less allergy problems. I had pets of all kinds growing up and in adulthood, with no problem. However more recently I helped a person who had too many pets and didn’t clean enough. I got severe allergies to cats. I don’t seem as bad with dogs however and am a dog person. I was also wondering the costs of a trained dog or the training of a dog. I wondered if one could assist me in living safely and independently, despite the after affects and symptoms of P.T.S.D. and other health problems. I am pleased with the discussion site.

    • Lisa Fitz says:

      In addition to my above comments I meant to add that I was addedly pleased to find the site because being a civilian, rather then military, the message boards, and chat rooms that I thought I might find others who have the disorder to talk to about it, are not open to me.

      • Flower says:

        I am glad you found this site Lisa! PTSD is PTSD no matter if you are a Veteran or Civilian. We all suffer but we are not alone.

  11. Flower says:

    Yes, Labdoodles are used for Service dogs and do a great job and a trained Service dog will give you independence and make you feel safer both inside your own home and outside in the community.

  12. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I
    will be waiting for your further post thanks once again.

  13. Pingback: A New Type Of Service Dog - Lez Get Real | Lez Get Real

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