Born to serve: How dogs help veterans with PTSD

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Article / October 13, 2020 / Project number: 20-0114

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By Moira Farr, Army Public Affairs

Seeley’s Bay, Ontario — Sergeant (Retired) Kevin Barter sits on the deck of his home in the quiet community of Seeley’s Bay, north of Kingston, Ontario, sipping a Tim’s coffee on an overcast September afternoon.

Thunder, the three-year-old black Labrador Retriever who has been his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) service dog for nearly a year, is resting quietly at his feet. 

Because Thunder is at home, he is not wearing his service vest, but he does sport a Toronto Maple Leafs fleece kerchief. “Yes, he’s a Leafs fan. He had no choice,” jokes Sgt (Retd) Barter.

Today, they have had a visit from Danielle Forbes, Executive Director of National Service Dogs (NSD), based in Cambridge, Ontario, one of Wounded Warriors Canada’s approved training organizations. 

Kevin and Thunder have passed their first annual recertification test since becoming a team. “He’s not going to be able to perform his job if I don’t keep up with it,” says Kevin. That means making sure Thunder responds to commands and retains his ability to provide a buffer for Kevin when they go out, at least three times a week, for medical appointments, banking, shopping, or (before COVID-19) having coffee or a meal out in a restaurant. 

Kevin says the moment he met Thunder at their training week in Cambridge, he knew he had found the right dog. “As soon as you see the dog, the bonding starts, really. I don’t know how it happens, but instantly you feel it.” Along with that connection came anxiety about getting through the training process. “I was scared to death, trust me. I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough for him.” 

Forbes says that fear is common among veterans when they first meet their dogs, likening it to the feeling of being a first-time parent. But she has no worries about Kevin and Thunder. 

“They’re good to go for another year,” says Forbes, proud to see another success story, one of many for her organization, since beginning their PTSD program in 2011. “Thunder has been heavily screened. If we didn’t think he had the right stuff he would never be here.”

For Kevin, who retired for medical reasons after 24 years of Army service, Thunder has been a life-changer. “Our relationship is wonderful. He’s my absolute best friend,” says Kevin. 

Fittingly, the ringtone on his phone is “Thunderstruck,” by AC/DC.

“I just went to Kitchener to drop off a computer for my daughter at college, and I went to my sister’s, who also lives in Kitchener. They have lots of little kids and they have cats, and it was loud, but fine. We got talking, and out of the blue, he just came up and put his head on my lap, and it’s like ‘Hey there, are you okay? Just checking in.’ It’s instantly calming.”

Kevin’s experience bears out research sponsored by Veterans Affairs Canada, which published the findings in 2019: “The study reports positive impacts for veterans with PTSD after acquiring the service dog, including decreased nightmares, improved sleep, fewer depressive symptoms and more social integration in the community.”

Creating a PTSD dog starts before birth

It is a painstaking process to breed, train and maintain a service dog, costing roughly $40,000 per dog from birth to retirement, which is one reason why it takes so long for Wounded Warriors Canada (WCC), relying solely on charitable donations, to match a dog with a veteran or first responder.

With a North American network of dog breeders and trainers tracking and sharing information about parental traits and litter successes, organizations such as NSD can pick and choose which dogs are best for breeding the kind of puppy suited for training as a PTSD service dog. (Right now, says Forbes, NSD sees roughly 65 percent of the dogs it breeds and trains becoming PTSD or autism service dogs; those that do not pass the various stages of training become pets in loving families). 

Thunder was sponsored and named by Purina, which provided food and veterinary care as he was trained. “I believe he was a bit of a handful as a puppy,” says Forbes. You’d never know it now. Sometimes they mature into it.”

Thunder went through NSD’s puppy development program, which begins, says Forbes, at two days old, while they are still with their mothers. “We have a whole regime, putting them on their backs, touching them between their toes, monitoring how they respond to being elevated and turned.” Over time, trainers discover how sensitive each dog is to touch, sound, people, other animals. In the beginning, says Forbes, “they’re all jumping around inside the pen, like ‘pick me up, pick me up,’ but you don’t pick them up, you wait until they sit. By the time they’re four weeks old, you go up to the side of the whelping box and you’ve got eight puppies sitting there. You’re just shaping those behaviours from the very beginning.” And, she adds, pointing to Thunder, “this is what you get.”

Worth the wait

Kevin waited four years to be paired with Thunder, which both National Service Dogs and Wounded Warriors Canada acknowledge is too long. Unfortunately, COVID-19 puts the organization six months behind in its placements. Now, however, says Captain (Retired) Philip Ralph, Director of Health Services at WWC, “the mutually agreed policy of all Wounded Warriors Canada Certified Service Dog Providers is that we will not add individuals to the waitlist beyond two years, but rather add individuals as space becomes available within the two-year window.” 

Wounded Warriors Canada is tracking 36 placements this year and has a waiting list of 87. Despite the pandemic’s effect on charitable donations, the organization has committed multi-year funding to the program.

Reflecting on the last year with Thunder, Kevin says, “I’d tell any veteran, if you have to wait, wait. Get on the list. If it’s going to mitigate any conditions you have, then yes.”

Kevin gets emotional when he talks about what Thunder has meant for him. “Fortunately, I asked for help. It took me a long time, but I did. It’s the best decision I ever made.”

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