He has added to my strength and his gentle nature has opened my heart and mind… as long as Ace is with me, I know that I am just fine.
– Greg Alkerton –
GREG ALKERTON – STORY 1
My name is Greg Alkerton. I am a resident of Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada, and I am also a Canadian Forces veteran. In April of 1992 I was part of the first Canadian Peacekeeping deployment to Yugoslavia. It was an historic milestone in that during that tour we also became the first military unit in the history of mankind to push 250 kilometers behind hostile lines and capture an airport for the purpose of feeding and aiding civilians. We broke the siege of Sarajevo, July 1992.
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Early in 2014, I made contact with Barb Ashmead, the founder of Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, based in Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, and soon after began working some basic dog obedience with her dog, Pilot. The basis of the program is that they pair a Veteran with a rescued dog and completely fund the pair as they go through a 52 week program, training them to become a certified Service Dog team. They will also train a veteran’s current dog, if they show the ability.
On March 30th, 2014, I would meet my very own service dog, Ace. He was in pretty rough shape when I met him, having being rescued some weeks prior to our meeting. He had been recuperating at a foster home until we started training together. He is a middle aged Black Lab- cross, fits in the large dog category, but just barely. His ribs still showed very prominently, his black coat was very dull, and he had several red scars on his nose and ears. He does have the most amazing brown eyes, and although he was sceptical, he stepped out of his foster’s truck and greeted me. I asked his foster-mom what had happened to him and she explained that he had been abandoned in Spokane, Washington out in the woods in a cage with two other dogs. When found, they had all nearly starved to death. After Ace recovered he was going to be euthanized by the local S.P.C.A. ,when he came to the attention of Barb and V.I.C.D. Even they weren’t sure if they could use him, but rather than see him killed, had him brought up to Qualicum Beach. I clipped my leash on him and we carried on to our class and it became apparent right away that he was keen to learn new things and frankly, he has never disappointed. After a few weeks of lessons I brought Ace home to live with me. I remember being overjoyed to the point of tears during the drive home. I had really been asking the universe to cut me a break at this point and it was happening. The full extent of the changes that Ace and this program have brought me, seem to be unending.
The hardest adjustment was for my 12 year- old domestic cat, “Tiggy+” An first sight, she attempted to bully Ace with hissing. He was truly scared. In a strange twist, however, he nervously took a side step, stepping on the lip of Tiggy’s water bowl , and dumping it into her face, sent her into two days of hiding, after which she emerged with a new attitude. The first change in my life came at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. Ruminating is a typical behavior of someone suffering PTSD and it goes on well into the night if you let it, and then a person typically spends most of the day not doing too much. Not this particular morning, however. I was asleep when suddenly Ace jumped onto the bed panting rapidly as he sat upright staring me in the face. “Just lie down for a minute” I said, and tried to close my eyes. Just then a large warm drop of drool landed right between my eyes. “Alright! I was up anyways. Not! Sheesh!” I muttered as I rolled out the side of the bed. “Who wants to go pee?” Ace bounded off the bed but the comforter was caught in his toenail and got ripped off the bed too. I could swear Ace was grinning about it as we made our way to the back door of my apartment , knowing that I couldn’t just lie down when we got back. Outside it was a beautiful spring morning, the sun just glinting over the tree tops, birds chirping and a cool breeze. I suddenly felt thankful that Ace had awoken me. I was going to experience a full morning for the first time in a long time, and it has been our routine ever since. That evening I was truly tired from being outside all day and my sleep has been pretty regular ever since.
The weeks with Ace flew by and there were more things we would learn about each other. I have a broken disc in my neck and I get frequent and horrible headaches. One morning as we pulled in to a parking space by a local hiking trail, I could feel one coming on. As well, I could see an aura which is often a warning sign but, not always. As I tried to get Ace ready for our walk, thinking we would get it over with, he wouldn’t co-operate. As I asked him to, “Come!”, he just sat in the car and stared at me as if I had a T-rex sneaking up behind me. Finally, I got him out and we started walking. All seemed normal until the first twinges of pain started a few meters from the car. Again, Ace sat and refused to go on. This time I got what he was trying to say, “Just get us home.” As I turned for the car, Ace took over and in a gentle yet assertive way, literally hauled me back to my car. The rest of the day he lay with me until it was over. Every now and then Tiggy would open the curtain to perch on the window sill, and Ace would cover my eyes with his head as a shield from the bright light which brings more intense pain. “He gets it!” I thought. Somebody finally gets it. In later weeks he also realized where I keep my pain medication so that now my “early warning” includes him going into my bathroom and sitting beside the pill bottle until I take one and go to bed. He routinely wakes me from bad dreams and when he sees me day- dreaming he will lean on me or poke me with his nose to bring me back. If I get one of these while I’m asleep and try to get up, Ace will lie on me and not let me out of bed. He makes a great nurse.
Miraculously, Ace’s coat completely shed in the first few weeks and he replaced it with a very silky blue/black coat that would be the envy of any dog. He gained just enough weight, and his scars healed over. As a carry-over from his former life, it appears as though he also had suffered a broken rear leg as a puppy, but that doesn’t slow him down either. Soon we began hiking which led to our newest passion, which is rock collecting. He literally re-introduced joy and fun back into my life. If Ace’s physical healing wasn’t miracle enough, our daily walks and training sessions also brought me to a much healthier place as we ramped up to 7 to 10 kms a day of walking. Ace’s wealth of positive energy, and the training manifesto at VICD: “Always keep it positive. If you make a mistake, go back to the point where you were doing it right, and start again”, were proving to have an effect as well, enough to give me incentive to change my whole philosophy on who I am.
My old cat was taking a real shine to Ace also, and I would often see them cuddling together. One morning around Christmas, 2014, I heard Tiggy making a strange noise and peeked in on Ace and her. She was on her side twitching, and Ace was licking her face. She recovered slowly but seemed really disoriented. I ran her to my vet who took blood tests, and gave us the bad news. Tiggy had brain cancer and it was time. I have to admit, she was a mainstay for me, and I didn’t know how I would get through the moment. She sat on my lap and struggled as the doctor came over with the needle, but Ace put his nose against hers and she calmed down. After the needle we all sat, Tiggy on my lap, with our heads together. After about twenty minutes I felt that she was gone. I looked up at Ace, who immediately went to the door and sat, waiting to go. He knew she was gone. He was ready to move forward and I knew that is also how I should be. We spent the rest of that day walking .
Very commonly PTSD is thought of as people living in the past. Indeed, they would like to move forward but they just don’t know how. Ace had just laid out a positive example of how to change my life and I’ve been working towards it since. When I become anxious or even overly angry, I can look to Ace and his displacement will show me whether or not my behavior is appropriate. Oddly, even before I utter a curse Ace will rise up into a ‘sit and give me this look’ and it stops me in my tracks, giving rise to a much kinder, gentler me.
Today we have been a certified Service Dog team for almost a year. Ace has brought me from existing in a dark apartment to hopefully being an example to my community and to my peers. We mentor other Veteran Service Dog teams for Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, hopefully giving them the same positive example that I was taught. It gives us a sense of pride, and for both of us outcasts it’s a place where we feel appreciated, and helping others helps us as well. I no longer require my anti-depressant medication and that has inspired me to live healthier, eat a more wholesome diet, and become more mindful of my own recovery. Seemingly the wisdom of this dog knows no limit. He never complains and no matter where I take him, he confidently accompanies me, his companionship has added to my strength, and his gentle nature has opened my heart and mind. Wherever I may roam I know I’m not alone. As long as Ace is with me, I know that I am just fine.
GREG ALKERTON – SERVICE DOG ARTICLE
Recently in B.C., our provincial government enacted some of the most comprehensive laws in Canada regarding Service Dogs. I have been a certified Service Dog handler for three years, and together with my team mate, Ace, a 10 year- old Black Lab, we have thoroughly enjoyed taking in restaurants and shopping malls, ferry rides and the like. Though, for both of us it wasn’t always this way.
“Service Dog, eh? So what exactly does he or she do for you?” Seems like a simple, straightforward question, doesn’t it? If I told you that it could take hours to explain that, would you be shocked? Believe me, I want to give you a short snappy answer and be gone like, “Oh he fetches my slippers”, or “He wakes me up when my favourite show is on!” It isn’t that simple an answer really.
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When you ask the aforementioned question, you are, in a way, asking a complete stranger, in a public place, to discuss their very private medical history with you, so I do stress tact if you absolutely need to ask someone. It may or may not go so well, depending on the stage of recovery the person is in. They might run away from you at first sight, or else take the floor and tell you way more than you ever wanted to know about them: the disorder, the dog, and their life. I did mention that this disorder has many facets. Right? Something to be aware of.
Now back to the meat and potatoes, so to speak, “What does he or she do for you?” Depending on the level of training the dog and handler, (person with PTSD will henceforth, in this article, be referred to as “the handler”), have had, this can be a very laborious subject. Let me clear that up for you. In most models a Service Dog is trained by professional trainers and given to its handler after he or she goes through a couple of weeks of training. In the model I come from, which is Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, a program for Veterans located in Qualicum Beach B.C., the handler and dog are paired, assessed for a couple of weeks for compatibility, and then live together and undergo the approximately 52 weeks of Service Dog training together, completely funded by V.I.C.D. So, for the purpose of this article, that is the point of view I come from. The end result is a strong bond, and as the handler I have a good background in dog training. As problems arise going forward I have the ability to train my dog and myself to deal with them, as opposed to being dependent on the school which may or may not offer post- graduate help. Unfortunately there is no consistency across Canada in the standards of training for our noble friends.
One task that most service dog handlers will tell you that their dog does, will probably shock you. Ace and I have been a Team for 3 years, and together for 4. He knows my daily routine better than any secretary in the world. The moment my feet hit the floor in the morning, he observes what I’m doing. Having a brain that wants to replay old war movies instead of functioning in the ‘now’; if I miss something that I should be doing and go off routine, my friend Ace will stop me and re-set me back into my routine. If I forget to brush my hair, take my pills, or clean my teeth, he will stop me at the door, forcing me to rethink and remember what I’m doing.
My experience is that the real magic of having a Service Dog takes place in your world and at home, not so much the classroom. Within weeks of living with me, my dog Ace, now a ten- year old Black Lab who still fusses over me, was so well- keyed into my emotions that he was able to know when I was experiencing a flashback, something people diagnosed with PTSD know all too well – a recurring daytime nightmare of a traumatic incident. As I would start to be drawn in, Ace would go and get a toy and drop it on my lap. That would startle me out of my dream, something which I have thanked him for a thousand times. Likewise, he watches my mood very closely. Ace was a rescued dog and suffered abuse, so he can pick out anger very quickly.
Most people with PTSD show symptoms when driving. No one takes the rules of the road, except when they don’t suit our purposes, more seriously, and a careless act from another motorist would cause me to react with fury. On one of my many drives down the highway towards Nanaimo, a Mercedes convertible with two young lads blew passed me, and for whatever reason my fuse started burning. I was about to hit the gas and follow them when Ace, in the backseat, gently put his muzzle on my shoulder and I could hear him breathing in my ear. He has brought me back from that edge so many times, in so many ways, but of course the miraculous thing is that he has to push himself through his own fear of angry male humans first, and still he faithfully does it, without hesitation.
One of the many things I brought home from the military, is a neck injury that is also the cause of my migraines, which I get at least once a week. Ace and his colleagues all have an incredible sense of smell, and the theory is that, prior to a migraine, he can literally smell the change in my blood pressure. So it was on a morning walk shortly after bringing Ace home,that he suddenly, without warning, sat. I couldn’t make him move. I gave the usual, “Come on Boy!” He just sat there staring at the top of my head, his nose going a mile a minute. After several moments of pleading, I started to see the usual aura, my indication that I would get a migraine. He could tell I was going to get one before I could tell, which gives me a real edge in planning my day, and medication needs for that day. On one occasion, a visit to Walmart, he again sat, starring at me. I thought, “Well I’d better hurry and get this done.” Ace would have none of it. He dug in as hard as he could, and literally pulled me out of the store to my car. Once at home he ran inside to the bathroom where I keep my medication and sat beside it until I took it. Then he grabbed my pant leg and hauled me into my bedroom. “Yes Mom!”
He really has helped me put my life back together in places where the pieces were missing. Somehow over twenty years I went from being a very organized, highly motivated soldier into a hermit that lived in darkness. I had no nightly routine. Sometimes I would just wander around all night, lost. Our first morning, he awoke me at 6:00 a.m. for the first time in years. Once I was outside with him, the smell of the spring air and the flowers made me feel happy and awake. I went to bed early that night and so a routine was established. Our daily walks and training sessions got us both into reasonably good shape again, and of course what with Ace being so handsome, people would come up and visit with us during our walks. In fact, I started having daily conversations with people I had only seen through the space in my curtains for twenty years. He bolstered me through my daughter’s wedding, and leaned on me when I held my very first granddaughter, not to mention giving me the courage to make several trips to Vancouver and other places to speak publicly on behalf of Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs and about PTSD.
Something else really incredible happened from that. I was given the opportunity, as are all graduates of V.I.C.D., to become a volunteer mentor. We would be helping other veterans adjust to their new dogs, and to the program itself. V.I.C.D. became a community for all of us and it felt good to be helpful, even if only in little ways. I felt so good mentoring, that I went to my local community theatre, and volunteered as a musician. Having decades of guitar playing under my belt, I now work with their choir program, providing accompaniment for their productions. I was then asked by a youth performance school to be a coach, and suddenly without warning, backed by the kindness and understanding of Ace, I was a member of my own community.
I feel that I have come a long way in a short time, since knowing Ace. V.I.C.D. has some incredible instructors, and in the very core of the Service Dog training that we underwent, we were taught repeatedly to be patient, take breaks often, use kindness, lots of encouragement, and love. I began to take the principles they taught us home. I began to give myself a break, I began to encourage myself too, and above all else, I learned not to get upset at mistakes: they were training opportunities. I quit drinking, no more caffeine, sugar, or processed food. I started learning how to live on an 80% plant-based diet. As Ace is an older dog, I have curtailed our walks a little. We also go to yoga classes together, and I meditate and practice mindfulness, all with him by my side. I have never felt so much alive and am now not afraid to try new things.
Dogs are masters of communication. They take great pains to spend 90% of their time communicating with us. They will stop and point at things they approve of, or want to bring to our attention. In order not to miss it, we have to open our minds a little. For a person who had given up and stopped communicating, learning this beautiful dance has opened my mind and brought so much peace I never thought it possible. In short, I think my Service Dog, Ace, has helped me with something I never knew I needed. He has helped me to become a bigger, better person.
Training a team is provided free of charge to each recipient. It takes one year and between $25,000 and $30,000 for a team to complete the program. This includes dog food, veterinary treatments, obedience training, training equipment and gas cards to cover the travel cost to and from class. If you find value in what we do please consider donating.
Our program is provided free of charge to each recipient. It takes one year and between $25,000 and $30,000 for a team to complete the program, This includes dog food, veterinary treatments, training, equipment and gas cards to cover travel to class.
If you find value in what we do please consider donating. Your donations help remind our veterans that their sacrifice is not forgotten.