Plan to give service dogs to PTSD veterans rocked by federal agency's decision to pull out

The future of the federal government’s bid to pair veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with service dogs was thrown into doubt Wednesday by the unexpected decision of a federal regulating agency to pull out of the project.

Canadian General Standards Board won't develop a nationwide code for training service dogs

Canadian Veterans Service Dogs take part in a training session at a mall in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The future of the federal government's bid to pair veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with service dogs was thrown into doubt Wednesday by the unexpected decision of a federal regulating agency to pull out of the project.

The Canadian General Standards Board announced it will not develop a nationwide code of acceptable training and behavioural standards for the animals.

The little-known agency delivered the news in a letter to at least two of the organizations involved in the psychiatric service dog program. A copy of the letter was obtained by CBC News.

The board did not provide any reasons and only said the decision was made "after careful consideration."

Having an acceptable national standard was one of the conditions set down for turning a federal pilot program into a permanent fixture at Veterans Affairs Canada.

A spokesman for the Veterans Affairs minister said the board was unable to reach a "consensus."

And while it is not going to develop a national standard for all service dogs, the department will move forward with its own rules for psychiatric service dogs, said Alex Wellstead in an email.

That provides little reassurance for the groups that have tried for five years to convince the federal government to adopt this approach for troops suffering from the emotional aftermath of the Afghan war and other conflicts.

"We were quite shocked" by the decision, said Brad White, national executive director of The Royal Canadian Legion. "We were really close to having a set of guidelines."

Phil Ralph, the national program director for Wounded Warriors Canada, was equally dismayed and said it "absolutely introduces uncertainty" into next steps by the federal government.

Both organizations sponsor separate service dog programs and have set down their own guidelines, based upon best practices in other jurisdictions.

It is crucial there be some kind of national standard, said White.

"I will hold to them to account that we are going to achieve some kind of standard," he said, because without one "I've a real concern that some veterans may not have an appropriately trained animal that may be harmful to them at some point in their rehabilitation."

Wellstead suggested the government shares that concern and intends to forge ahead sometime later this year.

"We're working to put in place standards, rapidly, so that veterans have access to properly trained psychiatric service dogs," he said.

The last federal budget introduced a tax credit for veterans using service dogs; Wellstead said that was an indication of the Liberal government's commitment and determination.

In terms of research, policy and practice, Canada has been lagging well behind the U.S. in the adoption of 'comfort animals' for those suffering from PTSD.

The first pilot program and study of the concept was launched by the Conservatives in 2015. A final report on the second phase of research, being led out of the University of Laval, is not expected until this summer.

Wellstead said the events on Wednesday will not affect either those ongoing efforts.

Ralph said the implementation of the service dogs program has dragged on for an exceptionally long time and, for the moment, he's prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

"It all depends on what they come out with in their own standards," he said. "We have decided to lead in the area with our own program. It's pretty obvious what the standards will have to look like and if the government matches what we've put out there, we'll be very happy."

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