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 –
Brian & Trooper
A VETERAN AND HIS PTSD SERVICE DOG
(A funny thing happened on the way to Winnipeg)
I’m a retired Strathcona from days gone by. I have a PTSD SERVICE DOG named “TROOPER” who is a 2 ½ year old chocolate lab. Together we went through a 52 week training course with Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, in order to meet with the B.C. government certification. It was a long process that involved close to 20 hours a week for the year. Of course there was a lot of stress involved with several outside agency exams, and a lot of travelling up and down Vancouver Island (travelling happens to be one of my PTSD triggers). After twenty years I still have the classic PTSD symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares, disassociation (zoning out), avoidance (running away), numbing (shutting down) and hyper-arousal (outburst, being hyper- vigilant, people in your personal space). These symptoms can be triggered by any of the senses and the reactions are either immediate, automatic, physiological or psychological. I can talk about me, but it really varies with each individual Veteran.
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I should mention at this point that WEST JET is a great Airline and really does treat you right when you’re a Veteran with a Service Dog. Everyone, from the office staff to the ticket takers, to the flight crew, was absolutely great.
We had been cooped up on the flight longer than anyone with PTSD would want to be. Trooper had her own seat (courtesy of West Jet) and she was sleeping. I could feel my anxiety level rising. It’s not fun to have that many people around you, closing in on your personal space in a confined tube. My adrenaline was starting to go into free flow, kicking in my fight or flight response. I knew that I was losing control of the situation and my hyper- vigilance was starting up as the pilot announced we were starting our descent. Maybe it was the plane starting to slow, or the landing gear shuttering under my feet, or my death grip on Troopers leash, but all of sudden she was sitting between my legs with her head on my lap at “Stand To”. It was time for her to go to work. Those big brown eyes were staring up at me saying “It’s o.k. I’ve got your back – just relax”. I closed my eyes, sighed and let out a deep breath. I could feel the tension starting to drain from my body, as TROOPER continued to lick my hand and I continued to try to pat a bald spot into her head.
The plane eased to a stop, the doors opened and everyone stood up. Talk about invading your personal space. It was my turn to take the lead on the PTSD Service Dog Team. I had to step up to the plate and make sure everyone knew there was a two-foot high dog with a red vest at their feet as they concentrated on shuffling down the tight aisle, twisting to get their oversize carry- on bags from the racks. I was starting to feel the sweat form on my forehead, my eyes were darting back and forth doing an assessment searching for any real or imaginary threat. I didn’t have time to worry about myself. It was my turn to protect my buddy. I slipped into protective mode as we progressed out the plane, up the ramp and into the terminal. (note to self: wait till everyone disembarks then get up and leave).
We were in the main terminal with what seemed like everyone else from the free world. We had been in this situation before. I don’t like crowds and just can’t handle them. There was a good chance I would slip off and down the path of hyper- arousal, disassociation along with the crushing reaction of wanting to get out of dodge as fast as possible.
In hindsight I can see the signals I was sending to TROOPER. I was tightening the leash and when she turned to look at me, she saw the loss of control and the panic on my face. The last thing I remember is feeling TROOPER lean into her harness, as she looked at me over her shoulder and seemed to say “Its ok partner I’ve got your back – Hang on”. The confusion was still on my face as my left arm stretched out. She was on a mission as she headed for the exit. My right arm was above and behind me as I tried desperately to keep myself upright and balance my backpack. Down the terminal, down the stairs, past the luggage carousel and towards the revolving doors we flew. I hadn’t felt like this since my early years in the Regiment when I went skiing on Bangy Boards behind a ferret scout car, while on a winter exercise.
As we went through the revolving doors, I realized I hadn’t seen my wife since exiting the plane. I’m sure TROOPER and I didn’t make a pretty sight, but we were safe outside the terminal with no one around. Apparently I beat everyone else off our plane and every other plane that had landed at the same time. As I tried to catch my breath, I couldn’t help thinking that I owed my life to this dog. She had just saved me from a full blown anxiety attack and melt- down on an airplane and in a major airport. What would I ever do without my companion, my buddy, my Service Dog? She had stepped up to the plate, taken control, did her duty and proved that she had my back.
I looked down at my buddy and watched as she eased over and had a pee on a small patch of grass. A puzzled look crept over my face “Did she just have to pee?” No! it couldn’t be. I’m sure she really had my back and saved me. As they say, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it”.
JUST ANOTHER DAY IN BOSNIA (1993/94) (A VETERAN AND HIS PTSD SERVICE DOG)
It was starting to be like any other day in the fall of 1993 in the former Yugoslavia. I can remember telling my wife just the other day that it was like living in Dodge City in the mid- 1800’s. Everyone carried a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it for the slightest reason. You couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. The country was full of check points, set up everywhere by whoever wanted to control that area or section of road. By the late afternoons, it was like drunken cowboys coming out of the local saloon as the smell of slivovitz (a local moonshine) was everywhere. I was just getting to the point where I could tell the differences between the Muslims, Croats and Serbs, but to be quite honest I couldn’t distinguish or fathom the atrocities, that each faction was capable of committing.
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By the middle of the afternoon, I had stopped to take my flak jacket and helmet off because of the heat. It was a bit lonely as this was one of the numerous trips that I couldn’t find someone to come with me. As I continued and the sun beat down, I noticed a new check point down the road. As I slowed to a stop in my white UN marked jeep Cherokee, I was approached by three soldiers. They could have been Croats, Muslims or Serbs, I just wasn’t sure as they grabbed me by the arm and roughly pulled me from my vehicle. Sometimes I could negotiate my passage with a few cigarettes, something that I always carried with me despite never having smoked, some bread, cheese, or my charming personality, but today was different. These guys were angry, hostile and really meant business. The questions was what type of business?
I always kept my Browning 9 mm. in a hip holster under my combat shirt. It was always with me and keeping it out of sight at the beginning, often let me come across as a non-threat, while trying to talk my way through yet another difficult situation. I slowly, unobtrusively felt my weapon under my shirt, knowing it was half- cocked, with the safety off and a round securely chambered.
It was clear that these guys meant business, I was on my knees, in the ditch, my hands behind my head and an AK-47 was forcefully being pushed repeatedly at the back of my head. I was regretting the decision to take off my flak jacket, but then again it wouldn’t have helped with a 7.62mm round from an AK-47 at short range. I could feel the sweat starting to form on my forehead, the back of my shirt and my palms. My heart rate was up, my breathing was rapid, and several scenarios were rapidly forming in my mind. I was trying desperately to force the negative ones of being shot in a ditch beside the road in a foreign country from my mind, and replace them with soul- saving ones. Could I negotiate my way out? Would I have to draw my pistol and fight my way out? Those damn rules of engagement! Could I make the first move to save my life, or could I only react to what these thugs were going to do? I could feel my anxiety level rising.
All of a sudden, I felt something wet run across my ear. It was like a warm damp cloth on the side of my head, but there was a closeness gently pressing against my head. Was it blood? Did I just get shot? I didn’t think so. My eyes fluttered. The haze of yet another more than real nightmare started to lift. My thoughts started to focus on the reality of where I actually was. My mind fought to make sense of it all, my body was already in a full sweat, my bed was soaking wet and I was in a full-fledged anxiety attack.
It was then that I realized Trooper, my 60 lb, 3 year old chocolate Labrador, PTSD Service Dog ,had crept up on the bed, between my wife and myself, laid down on my pillow around my head and had started to lick the side of my face to wake me. As I lay in the dark of the room, letting my breathing slow, Trooper slowly eased off the bed and moved over to her bed on the floor as if to say “You’re OK now. I’ve done my job. I’m going back to bed”. I slowly eased my feet onto the floor and started to wonder what had triggered this real life experience that was haunting me in my dreams.
Trooper came into my life, after I spent twenty- odd years battling PTSD. I was diagnosed with Chronic Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder after my year service in Bosnia (1993-1994). The year wasn’t hard but my return to Canada was. Like other Veterans with PTSD, I was subject to the “normal” symptoms (Flashbacks, Nightmares, Avoidance, Numbing, Hyper- Arousal and Disassociation), brought on by various triggers (usually through the senses of hearing, taste, seeing, touch and smell) that led to certain reactions, which were immediate, automatic, physiological or psychological. It’s been like being on a roller coaster: I have had some good and bad days, weeks and years.
I was fortunate to be accepted into the “Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs” (V.I.C.D.), a unique program that matches rescue dogs with Veterans with PTSD and trains them together in a 52 week comprehensive program. It consists of a combination of formal obedience training, bonding, specific skill sets designed to help me manage my PTSD, and an organized support group. It is hard work. I had committed about 25 hrs a week for a year, working with Trooper. The course costs approximately $ 15,000.00 for each Veteran, which is covered by V.I.C.D., a non-profit society who does all the fund-raising.
There are a lot of people who don’t understand PTSD. Sometimes you want to shrink away from the world, wishing you were the person you were before, but being with a dog with a bright red “Service Dog Vest” on, forces you to confront your fears and move positively forward. I have benefited greatly from going through this training together with Trooper and being certified as a “Service Dog Team” through the BC government under their new legislation for Service Dogs.
Every Veteran has a different story, but they are strikingly similar. PTSD is not easy to talk about, and I often go through the debate in my head as to whether I’m a wounded warrior with an invisible wound or just a broken warrior. I have always been the person to be there to help others, but now I’m on the receiving end. It’s a hard transition, but you have to be willing to ‘Soldier Up’, and ask for help. Whether it’s a Service Dog or some other type of help, I can assure you, it is well worth the leap of faith.
WOUNDED WARRIOR SUPPORT
I am writing to Thank You for your support and sponsorship. I am a member of the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs (V.I.C.D). VICD matches Veterans diagnosed with PTSD, with a rescue dog and together they train as a Service Dog Team. I was fortunate to be sponsored by Wounded Warriors Canada through this program.
I was a member of the Canadian Forces for 28 years. One of my more unique deployments was a year (93-94) in the former Yugoslavia, at what some described as the height of the war. I spent the first six months in Sarajevo at BH Command, doing route recces and negotiating clearances for military escorts for humanitarian food convoys. Once a week I drove the infamous “Sniper Alley” trying to get to negotiation meetings with all three warring factions, while snipers played a game of putting rounds through the side window of my jeep. The last six months of my tour were spent working as a Liaison Officer between Bosnia-Herzegovina Command and UNHCR, doing weekly visits to Belgrade, Zagreb, Split and Sarajevo.
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I left the military a year after I got home because I felt like I didn’t belong, and there didn’t seem to be any help or anyone who really understood what I was going through. I spent six long, very disruptive years dealing with anxiety / panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, anger, hyper- vigilance concentration, memory problems, and all the classic PTSD symptoms that you read about. Around 2000, I was lucky enough to have an old friend point me in the direction of the Operational Trauma & Stress Support Centre (OTSSC) in CFB Esquimalt.
I was diagnosed with Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. Veterans Affairs used the term “Totally and Permanently Incapacitated”. Over the last fifteen years I have gone through counselling, had many ups and downs, and have worked with the British Columbia Operational Stress Injury Clinic and Veterans Affairs Canada. I have also developed many physical ailments (heart condition, diabetes and hand tremors) consequential to my PTSD and the associated stress. Even with a supportive family and friends, PTSD with all of its classic symptoms has impacted every aspect of my life. I am all too aware of how it can rise up at any time, as a result of any variety of triggers. I was introduced to the Vancouver Island Compassion Dog Society (V.I.C.D), an organization that takes rescued and re-purposed dogs, fosters them and evaluates them for their capability of becoming PTSD service dogs. As a Veteran with PTSD, I applied for the Program and went through a very selective interview process. In March 2015, I was fortunate to be matched with a one year old chocolate Lab (whom I named TROOPER), and to be sponsored through a generous donation by Wounded Warriors Canada.
Trooper was a rescue dog from the B.C.S.P.C.A., tied up to the fence when the staff arrived at work one day. She has a ¼ “scar around her neck from where a collar was embedded in her neck, and several scars on her front legs. We embarked on a 52 week comprehensive training course that allows us to work and learn at our own pace. The program was very responsive to me as an individual and also to my canine companion. In order to receive the certification of “Service Dog” we had to complete three formal dog training courses by a dog behaviorist trainer, in addition to the training and preparation for two outside agency tests from the Canadian Kennel Association and testing under the new BC legislation for British Columbia Guide Dog and Service Dog Assessment.
Trooper and I trained weekly on formal training phases, and every Wednesday with the other veterans in the program for individual training, group training, and a variety of workshops. Trooper and I also trained for about 2-3 hours daily. As we were sponsored by Wounded Warriors Canada, the costs of approximately $12,000.00 to $15,000.00 were covered. Because of this type of training program, it allowed me to concentrate on the training and the special bonding that occurred. I use to “hermitize” by staying in the house for weeks at a time, never wanting to go out of my little safety bubble. I am now forced to go out. The obvious reason is to let Trooper relieve herself, but it also includes a training walk in the morning, afternoon and evening, and several short training sessions throughout the day. I now go to the beach in the morning with my daughter and her dog. I go for coffee at a local café with some military friends, and I get to socialize along the dog paths with other dog owners, who are curious about my training.
Trooper and I have bonded to the point where there are two specific areas that she helps me. The first is part of the bonding. She realizes when I’m “down”, getting frustrated, or at the start of a anxiety attack. She comes up very close to me and starts licking me, helping to distract me and allow me to ground myself. When I’m tired, both mentally and physically, Trooper lies beside me, very close, with her body or paws touching me. During severe nightmares, she curls around my head to protect and comfort me. This allows me to relax, knowing someone is there, but not demanding that I talk or explain my feelings or actions – just there – non- judgemental companionship, providing a calming and comforting effect.
The second area is about specific skill sets that we work on together. On the command “Front” or “Behind” Trooper will place herself so as to block someone who is too close for my comfort. She will alert me to someone walking behind me; she will “Sweep” a room or area to give me added comfort and assurance that a strange place is safe for me. Trooper also allows me to use her as an excuse to leave an uncomfortable situation by my saying “nature calls.” She gives me the confidence to go for walks in the open street, in the woods, and enter crowded areas without becoming hyper-vigilant and worrying about imaginary snipers. One of my biggest triggers was travelling by myself. Basically, I couldn’t go anywhere without my wife, Sheila. This caused a great deal of stress for her, as she cared for and looked after my needs. Now, Trooper goes with me everywhere: to the bank, the store, coffee, visiting, etc. Trooper hasn’t replaced Sheila, but she has certainly eased the load and stress that I have placed on her over the years.
Lots of people don’t understand PTSD, and sometimes you want to shrink away from the world, wishing you were the person you were; but being with a dog wearing a Service Dog Vest, forces you to confront your fears and move forward positively. I have benefited greatly from this particular Program where we went through the training together, and Trooper wasn’t just presented to me as a trained Service Dog. It would appear that we have both been rescued and worked together to save each other – as a team.
Every Veteran’s story is different, but in some way the same. PTSD is not something that is easy to talk about, and I often go through the debate in my head as to whether I am a wounded warrior with an invisible wound or am just a broken warrior. I can’t thank Wounded Warriors Canada enough for their sponsorship in this Program with Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, and the fantastic work your organization does. Brian Cameron, Major (retired) And TROOPER PS: My wife Sheila and I attended the Wounded Warriors COPE program with Chris Linford, another great program supporting Veterans
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.