B.C. service dogs help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder

Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs team presents at Pemberton Legion ahead of program expansion

Retired Major Brian Cameron was having a nightmare, but he didn’t know that.

As far as he could tell, he was back in Bosnia, where he served for a year between 1993-94. “I was in a bombed-out village. There were explosions, and buildings were half blown out. I was running through, trying to get away from things, saw this building and ran into it. There were other people sitting there, and one offered me a helmet,” Cameron told Royal Canadian Legion representatives gathered at the Pemberton branch’s main hall on Saturday morning (Sept. 23).

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“They said, ‘this will protect you.’ I put the helmet on, and could feel something dripping down. I thought it was blood.”

But it wasn’t blood. It was Trooper, his three-year-old chocolate lab. She had climbed onto the bed and was licking his head to wake him up, after sensing Cameron was having a full-blown anxiety attack as he slept. “She’s done that numerous times with different nightmares,” explained Cameron.

It’s a story that gripped attendees of Saturday’s meeting. Hosted by the Pemberton branch, members from five different legions located along the North Shore and Sea to Sky corridor were in attendence.

Cameron, who lives in Comox, and Trooper were in town with the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs (VICD) organization, alongside executive director Mike Annan and director of administration Barb Ashmead, promoting the program to veterans across the coast ahead of its planned launch in the Lower Mainland early next year. The organization equips veterans who, like Cameron, struggle with stress injuries like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with the support of a service dog that’s specially-trained to help them deal with the associated symptoms.

After applying and being accepted to the program, veterans are gradually paired up with a dog and embark on a year-long training program towards receiving certification. Twice a week, the pair meets with VICD’s professional trainers and mental health clinical practitioner for training sessions that foster everything from basic obedience skills to specific tactics that enable the dog to help the veteran navigate his or her unique set of struggles and symptoms — for example, Trooper knows how to snap Cameron out of disassociation episodes by wrapping her leash around his legs, and even fetches his medication in the morning.

Most importantly, training as a team creates a deep bond between the dog and veteran that in turn translates into ongoing, unconditional support. The program costs about $15,000 per dog, all of which is offered at no cost to the participants. VICD, which receives support from the legion’s BC Yukon Command, is also in the process of becoming an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) accredited school.

“I don’t believe that if I paid $15,000 and said ‘I need a PTSD service dog,’ and someone came up and gave me that dog, that I would have that relationship,” Cameron said, as Trooper curled up by his feet. “This program is so unique in that it’s that bonding and working together.”

As opposed to guide dog schools that train dogs to serve as a mechanical aid for someone with a physical disability, VICD’s cooperative training program works to address mental health struggles as well. Between travelling to training sessions and caring for their new partner, the human participants tend to graduate the program with increased confidence and comfort in their daily lives, as well.

“For someone with PTSD, it’s a much different process. It’s not a physical thing… It’s more of a relationship-based piece, so the dog learns to work with a particular client’s cues. The graded approach to the program allows the client to slowly integrate back into (routine and community) using the leverage of working with a dog,” Annan explained.  

Currently, the program remains based in Qualicum Beach, making it difficult for veterans on the mainland to take part. But, contingent on adequate funding, VICD plans to open up its program to veterans living in Vancouver, Whistler, Pemberton and beyond this winter, by offering the same year-long, twice-a-week program in the Lower Mainland. By expanding the program, VICD aims to help more recovering service members, like Cameron, regain control of their lives.

“We have the program all ready to go, so now it’s just educating and building partnerships in the community we’ll be serving,” Annan explained.

Launched five years ago, 15 veterans have successfully completed the certification program to date, with 12 currently enrolled in the program and five more that recently completed the intake process. However, the demand remains higher than the available funding, with a backlogged waitlist of applicants that’s “more than a baker’s dozen,” Annan explained. “At this point it would take more than a few years to get through everybody.”

For more information, go to vicompassiondogs.ca.

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