OTTAWA — Health Canada is funding special schooling for service-dog trainers to teach the animals to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The online training course, funded by the department's substance use and addictions program, is designed to help trainers prepare service dogs for veterans, including those recovering from substance abuse.
Prof. Colleen Dell, an expert in animal-assisted interventions at the University of Saskatchewan, headed the team that designed the tool kit.
Her research has found that service dogs can significantly assist veterans with PTSD. But they are still in a minority of those receiving service animals.
"We have done a lot of research that shows that service dogs absolutely can help veterans," Dell said. "Service-dog organizations may have 100 clients, and 10 are veterans."
Since 2015, the professor has studied the impact of dogs on veterans who suffer from substance abuse and mental health problems after leaving the military.
Her research found that veterans with PTSD who were given a service dog saw their use of alcohol and illegal and legal drugs decrease, as did their PTSD symptoms. It also found that stroking a dog can "disrupt emotional overload." Some veterans, too traumatized to leave the house, started going out to walk their dog and began to socialize.
There are over 500 service dogs currently used by veterans in Canada, with more in training, Dell said.
The dogs are trained to comfort veterans, provide company and support, and wake them up from nightmares. Some are trained to steer veterans away from situations that could cause anxiety.
In the 2018 budget, the government extended a medical tax credit to help people with PTSD with service dogs foot the cost of expenses including veterinary bills and dog food.
The course was designed by a team from universities across Canada, veterans, service-dog groups and guidance from Indigenous elders.
It will be made available to 40 service-dog training organizations that also train dogs to assist people who are blind, deaf and have other disabilities.
The tool kit will address issues including substance use, the importance of peer support and the impact on veterans of an emotional connection with animals.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2021.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press