The period before Mike Richards got his first service dog was a dark chapter in his life.
The military veteran from Saskatchewan had a hard time leaving his house. Richards said he didn't want to be around anyone and he was feeling suicidal.
Richards was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2009.
"At the time, I was trying to get anything to bring my life back to kind of normalcy," he said.
Therapy alone didn't help him. Things changed, though, with the arrival of his first service dog, Sadie, in 2016, and later his second dog, Felix.
"The biggest thing he does, he is a companion," said Richards.
"He's huge for me.… All he wants is food and loving."
Richards was an advisor for a study at the University of Saskatchewan, looking into how the bond with a dog can influence someone's decision to live.
University of Saskatchewan PhD student researcher Alexandria Pavelich looked at the concept of mattering — the need to feel valued by others — and how dogs can provide this personal significance to their human companions.
"The concept of mattering is important to someone's overall mental health and to reduce suicide risk," said University of Saskatchewan sociology professor Colleen Dell, who supervised the research.
"[The dogs] offer this purpose, the sense of belonging in our lives. And what they really do is they're really critical to curbing that sense of hopelessness."
Stories like Richards's about the importance of service dogs and the relationships to their owners are common, said Dell.
However, there has been a lack of research in the field, she added.
In Canada, approximately 11 people die by suicide each day, according to the federal government.
A 2019 study by Veterans Affairs Canada found that male veterans were 1.4 times more likely to die of suicide than other male Canadians. Female veterans had a 1.9 times higher risk of dying by suicide compared to other women in the country.
In her research, Pavelich followed four Canadian veterans over a 16-month period while they were paired with service dogs to help them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use and suicidal ideation, according to a news release.
The veterans she talked with said the animals made a significant impact in their lives.
"They repeatedly shared how their dogs literally saved their lives," she said in the news release.
"It was the dogs that seemed to bring together all their efforts at various treatments."
Pavelich is sharing her findings at the virtual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences from May 12 to 20, which the Federation For The Humanities And Social Sciences calls "the largest academic gathering in Canada."
Unconditional love and acceptance
Dell said the research not only found that the concept of mattering can exist between a human and an animal, but also pointed to benefits service dogs like Felix might offer to someone, which they might not get in a human-to-human relationship.
"He doesn't judge me if I'm having a bad day," Richards said of his service dog.
The animal came into the veteran's life at the end of 2018 and has been at his side ever since.
Felix helps Richards when he has a flashback or gets anxious.
"If I have a nightmare, he wakes me up before it really goes into full effect," said the Saskatchewan veteran.
"He just makes my life kind of back to normal, not fully normal, but back to normal, so I can survive in society and be there for my little girl."
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available.
For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.
You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 by calling 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645, or chatting online.
You can contact the Regina mobile crisis services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.
You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.
Kids Help Phone can also be reached at 1-800-668-6868, or you can access live chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.