Psychiatric service dog 'saved my life,' veteran says
They've survived war zones and other high stress environments in service to our country, and for some, a specially-trained dog can help them heal. But despite diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, some Canadian veterans are still waiting for the support they say could change their lives.
Stephane Marcotte met Labrador retriever "Sarge" after retiring from a 28-year military career.
"Eighteen of those was on a submarine," he told CTV News as Sarge dozed in his lap on the couch in their Victoria home.
"Every time you go on a mission, you never know what's going to come up."
Marcotte was diagnosed with PTSD at a time when even getting outside was difficult for him.
"I was trapped in my house, in my basement… Medication didn't work anymore," he recalled.
He connected with a local group that trains psychiatric service dogs, and that's when he found Sarge.
"He came to the room, sat right on my foot and he chose me," he said. "That saved my life."
The dog helps Marcotte, waking him up during nightmares, calming him down and forcing him to get out of the house. They go for walks and play in the park.
Marcotte said they have a good relationship and make each other happy. Sarge sticks with him during outings, helping to make the veteran feel comfortable and supported.
It's the kind of support many vets are still waiting for.
"We have a waiting list of approximately two years with most of our providers," Wounded Warriors Canada's Phil Ralph said.
Training the dogs takes time, and the cost per dog is about $15,000 – an amount funded by donations.
Ralph hopes the federal government will get involved in the project. He said a commitment from Ottawa would mean more dogs get into the hands of veterans in need.
The government did fund a pilot study which followed veterans paired with service dogs.
The results released this year showed a decrease in PTSD and depression symptoms, better sleep and increased mobility. Despite the findings, Veterans Affairs would not commit to more funding for service dogs.
The ministry told CTV it's "looking into options," adding there is a service dog tax credit that can save veterans up to $1,500. Veterans Affairs also intends to adopt national standards for training, but there's no timeline on that decision.
Marcotte hopes that more veterans will get to experience what he has with Sarge.
"I can enjoy life. That's what the service dog gives you back," he said.
Donations to Wounded Warriors Canada can be made online, with the option to specify which program you'd like to support.
WWC is an independent veterans' charity focusing on mental health. In addition to the service dog program, its initiatives include therapy, respite care, scholarships and trauma resiliency training.
With a report from CTV Vancouver's Maria Weisgarber