For submarine veteran Stephane Marcotte, getting out of the house was a much harder task before he was paired with his compassion dog, Sarge.
Now, with help from Sarge, Marcotte, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, is able to enjoy the outdoors and be social.
Sarge is a certified service dog, provided through Qualicum Beach-based Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs (VICD), which provides a service dog training program for veterans living with PTSD.
“He helps me in various states, mentally, physically, socially, and gets me out of the house for fresh air and wonderful scenery,” Marcotte wrote in the VICD storybook.
Marcotte was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010 but his trauma happened in 1995 so he had been struggling for more than 20 years, trying various ways to get his life on track. After seeing doctors, using prescription drugs, and even therapy, Marcotte decided to go off all his PTSD medications because he said he had no feelings whatsoever.
“I was OK for about a [year-and-a-half], then started to feel the depression, avoided all social interactions and experienced deep and horrifying PTSD moods,” he wrote.
It was during a weekend function called “A Tribute to Veterans” at Bear Mountain Resort that Marcotte learnt about VICD.
“Many Veterans with PTSD who have service dogs told me how great it was, so I took the information from the (VICD) booth, and then contacted Barb Ashmead (founder),” Marcotte wrote.
Marcotte has had Sarge since 2015.
“When I don’t realize I’m stressed, he grabs my arm or simply puts his head on my lap, or barks at me to get me out of my stressful situation,” Marcotte wrote.
Compassion dogs help veterans suffering from PTSD in many ways, says VICD executive director Mike Annan.
“PTSD is a mobility issue a lot of the times for our veterans in terms of isolation, depression and not getting out of the house,” Annan said. “Just by having the leverage of a companion, someone to take care of…having that partnership out and about in the community gives [veterans] the confidence to get out and do things like shop, simple tasks that we take for granted.”
The service dogs are also trained to mitigate symptoms of PTSD, help veterans stay grounded in social situations and help with night tremors and flashbacks.
“[Service dogs] do wake our veterans up from nightmares and they are trained to turn lights on to help re-orientate the veterans after they’ve had a nightmare,”Annan said. “Some of our dogs are also trained to remind, or even in some cases retrieve, medication at various times throughout the day so our veterans with PTSD don’t forget to take that medication.”
The training process for service dogs, Annan said, is very extensive. After the puppies are bred through the VICD breeding program, they enter into a 15 month training program with a puppy trainer. Next, instructors decide whether the dog is ready for a 20-week advanced training program.
“Our dogs are all pre-qualified before they get to a veteran,”Annan said. “Once they are paired with a veteran, our veteran and dogs spend one year in our Healthy Community Living program. They then become a fully certified service dog team and we have that dog in service for about six to eight years.”
Since 2014, 30 veteran and dog teams have graduated and been certified by the BC Guide Dog and Service Dog Act, 16 teams are working their way through the 52-week training program and 19 veterans and RCMP members are on the wait list.