Some Manitoba military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder say a program involving service dogs is helping them rebuild their lives.
The unique program pairs certified service dogs, which have been trained in Manitoba, with veterans suffering from PTSD.
The dogs provide the veterans with constant companionship, react when they are emotionally distressed, and protect them from vulnerable situations.
Jesse Veltri, a veteran from CFB Shilo in southwestern Manitoba, says his service dog, Farrah, helps him stay calm.
"If I'm crying or something like that, she'll step up and she'll kiss me or something," he said.
Veltri, who served on the front lines in Afghanistan in 2008 and now suffers from PTSD, said Farrah has given him hope even when he felt suicidal.
"If I would have owned some guns, I probably would be dead by now," he said.
Dogs in high demand
George Leonard, who finds and trains the service dogs on his own time, says 67 of the canines are currently working one-on-one with soldiers and veterans in Canada and the United States.
The service dogs are in high demand, said Leonard, adding that soldiers and veterans who are suffering the most from PTSD get help first.
"I have people on waiting lists that we're concerned about," he said.
Terence Kramchynsky, who was diagnosed with PTSD after serving in the Canadian Forces for 21 years, says he is lucky to have Spencer, a service dog currently in training.
"I'm glad I took him because I don't think I'd be here," he said.
Kramchynsky said his PTSD prevented him from going to busy shopping malls, but now he feels safe in public places with Spencer is by his side.
"He can feel me getting upset," he said. "My mind scrambles a lot."
Costs not covered
But Kramchynsky faces a new hurdle: he's on a fixed income, and he needs financial assistance to cover the costs of Spencer's care.
Leonard does not charge anyone for having the service dogs, but the veterans and soldiers who use the service must cover the costs of caring for the dogs.
It costs Kramchynsky about $70 a month to take care of Spencer, but that covers mainly food, not medical expenses.
The federal government does not cover the cost associated with the service dogs.
But Kramchynsky said the costs should be covered, as his injuries are the same as any other disabled veteran — even if his scars are not visible.
"Let's just wrap a bandage around my head. I'd get more respect walking through this mall with a bandage [and] with a little piece of blood hanging here; people would then understand," he said.
Officials with Veterans Affairs Canada say they are exploring the idea of using service dogs as a form of therapy for PTSD.
Leonard said he was recently contacted by officials at CFB Shilo who want to talk to him further about the service dogs.