Brian Cameron was matched with his service dog Trooper in February of 2014. — Photo courtesy Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs

Compassion dogs combat soldiers’ PTSD

Brian Cameron and Trooper were matched in February 2014

Just a few years ago, Brian Cameron hadn’t left Comox for two years.

That all changed when Cameron was matched with Trooper, a rescue dog, in February 2014.

Trooper is Cameron’s certified service dog, provided through Qualicum Beach-based Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs (VICD), which provides a service dog training program for veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cameron spent a year between 1993-94 in Bosnia, which is described on Veterans Affairs Canada as a peacekeeping mission.

Beginning in 1991, the Canadian Armed Forces were sent to the Balkans, which consisted of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia. Those countries were formed from the former country of Yugoslavia after years of turmoil.

“In the early 1990s, the various regions tried to split off and form their own countries, dividing along ethnic and religious lines,” according to Veterans Affairs Canada. “There were many cases of ethnic cleansing where entire villages or areas of minorities were persecuted, driven out or killed outright by armies.”

In the VICD storybook, Cameron said being in Bosnia was like living in Dodge City in the mid-1800s.

“Everyone carried a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it for the slightest reason.”

In the storybook, Cameron details a real-life experience during his time in Bosnia when he was pulled from his United Nations-marked vehicle by three soldiers who then pushed him to his knees with his hands behind his head and repeatedly pushed an AK-47 into the back of his head.

Cameron never finishes the story because that time around he was only dreaming of that real-life experience in Bosnia. Before the dream could finish, Trooper, his 60-pound service dog, had jumped on the bed to lick Cameron’s face.

Cameron previously told The NEWS that he’s had a couple of really bad flashbacks and nightmares, but Trooper will recognize what’s happening while Cameron sleeps and wake him up.

“(Trooper will) tune into me and actually come up and wake me up. If I’m feeling down and depressed, then when I go and lay down, she comes up on the bed and she’ll lay right beside me. If I roll over, she scooches over and she’s right beside me.”

Cameron was officially diagnosed with with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder only after spending about 20 years battling PTSD. With PTSD, Cameron said, people become hyper-vigilant, “so you’re always looking for the danger-type thing.”

If Cameron had to enter a store, for example, he said he would spend all his time just looking around and being situationally aware.

“I’d never relax. Even to the point of going out of our house,” Cameron said.

But once Cameron decided to try out VICD, he was forced to leave his home in Comox for Qualicum Beach.

Barb Ashmead, Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs director of administration, funding and sponsorship, said VICD has been running in Qualicum Beach for five years. She said veterans in the program come to Qualicum Beach for the 52-week program, adding that it can be difficult for the veterans to leave the comfort of their homes.

“I think they all — they wanted it to work. They were looking for something to work, so they worked past their anxieties of driving here and coming into the program. They work very hard at coming twice a week to train,” Ashmead said.

Cameron said he now goes into stores with Trooper on a weekly basis. He said it’s part of Trooper’s constant training, but it’s also him “stretching out and feeling more comfortable.”

Ashmead said in VICD’s five-year history, the organization has amassed 18 certified teams, 12 people working their way through the 52-week program, four new people to the program and a waiting list of 12 people.

Ashmead said VICD can train about 12 dogs each year through the program at a cost of $28,000. However, the veteran gets the dog for free. The two biggest contributors, Ashmead said, are the B.C. and Yukon Legion Command and Wounded Warriors.

Ashmead said there are approximately 2,500 veterans on Vancouver Island. She said at a conservative figure of 10 per cent, that would mean about 250 veterans living with PTSD. Out of those 250 people, 100 people could use a service dog.

“At this time it would take 8.3 years to train that many dogs for what we need right now, let alone all the new people transitioning out (of service),” Ashmead said.

For more information on Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, visit www.vicompassiondogs.ca.

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