Recent PTSD case shows increasing value of service animals as treatment option

Sgt. Shirley Jew and her service dog, Snoopy. There have been long-simmering questions about how post-traumatic stress disorder is treated in Canada, about whether the military has done enough to help veterans who return from stressful missions overseas and whether the government is doing enough to help them re-acclimate to society.

That question came to a head this week when a Canadian veteran attempting to fly to Toronto to attend a funeral was told the dog she relies on to cope with PTSD was not considered a service animal.

Sgt. Shirley Jew says she was told by Air Canada that PTSD was not recognized as a disability and that she would be charged $50 to have her pug-schnauzer-terrier Snoopy ride with her from Edmonton to Toronto.

The original Air Canada response to her request, posted to the MSAR - Service Dogs Facebook page, suggested the issue was that Canada does not currently recognizing PTSD as a condition that necessitates the use of a service animal.

"We have spoken with our medical desk and they have informed us that they explained to you that PTSD isn't yet recognized by the Canadian government as one of the conditions requiring a service animal," the posted letter reads.

"Under current regulations, we are required to permit service animals only for flights to the US where PTSD is recognised as a condition requiring service animals."

Air Canada has since apologized, but not before Shirley cancelled her flight and flew to Toronto via WestJet, where Snoopy was allowed to fly for free.

[ Related: Air Canada sorry soldier with PTSD charged for service dog ]

Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told Yahoo Canada News that “Air Canada does have a policy in place to accept service animals of passengers with disabilities.” He added that, in this case, issues arose when they requested more information about the service animal.

For the record, Transport Canada's service animal policy states that air operators must accept service animals that "may be trained to guide a person with a visual impairment, alert people with a hearing impairment, pull a wheelchair, carry and pick up articles for persons with mobility impairments, or assist persons with mobility impairments with their balance."

It does not currently make any mention to emotional support generally or PTSD specifically. Yahoo Canada News has requested clarification on the issue.

Snoopy, Sgt. Shirley Jew's service dog.

Jew is a long-time member of the Canadian Armed Forces and has served on three overseas tours, including tours to Syria and Afghanistan. She said she was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012 and uses Snoopy to handle the symptoms.

Here is how Jew describes her relationship with Snoopy, via MSAR Service Dogs:

I rescued a dog in May 2013 and due to the positive influence she had in my life, I decided to see about her becoming my Service Dog. Through MSAR I took the online course and three months later went to Winnipeg for her to evaluation and training. Snoopy was qualified by the time I left Winnipeg and has helped me lower my anxiety and anger issues, so that I could start treatment. She has taken away my high levels of hyper vigilance by scanning and always watching my back. She interrupts my nightmares so that I sleep better now than I have in years. I can honestly say that Snoopy has saved my life.

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The Canadian military has faced a glut of recent headlines about veterans returning to Canada with PTSD, and how those soldiers are treated. A series of suicides in December drew attention to the issue and has led to an ongoing debate on how to treat the disorder.

In most cases, currently, the answer is medication. But there is a growing belief that service animals have a role to play.

Wounded Warriors, a support group for injured veterans, says service dogs "are trained to operate with veterans suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have made an incredible impact in the lives of our service men and women in their struggles with mental health."

But acceptance is an uphill battle, and there have been several recent cases where the use of service animals has caused some problems.

Sgt. Stewart Murray, a reservist military police member based out of Moncton, N.B., faced court martial last year for bringing his psychiatrist-prescribed service dog to work with him. In November, two veterans were told their dogs were not welcome in a Dartmouth emergency room, despite a policy to allow full access to service animals.

The question of whether service animals should be recognized as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder is ongoing. And as an added bonus, the more we talk about the treatment option, the more attention will remain on the issue of helping veterans as they return to Canada.

Funny that a dog named Snoopy could have such an impact.

(Photo courtesy MSAR - Service Dogs and The Canadian Press)

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