Edmonton soldier's battle over service dog wins support from top general

An Edmonton soldier’s emotional battle to have his beloved service dog at his side received some much-needed support Wednesday from Canada’s top general and the defence minister.

Sgt. Jeffrey Yetman, a veteran of five overseas deployments, says his dog has changed his life

Sgt. Jeffrey Yetman says he can't picture his life without his service dog. (CBC)

An Edmonton soldier's emotional battle to have his beloved service dog at his side received some much-needed support Wednesday from Canada's top general and the defence minister.

But Sgt. Jeffrey Yetman, a veteran of five overseas deployments, said he will wait to see whether there are changes to new rules that now ban his service dog from many buildings on base.

Yetman said he was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder in 2002. Despite that, he continued to deploy overseas, until a severe breakdown in 2013.

A year later, he was given Diego, a German shepherd service dog he said has changed his life.

"I wouldn't leave my house for days, weeks on end, without my wife," he said. "I didn't like crowds, I didn't like people. I hated myself."

As he spoke, he stroked Diego's head. "He brought me out of that dark corner."

A soldier for 26 years, Yetman said he first heard of Standing Order 109 when he saw it posted on the door of the officers' mess at CFB Edmonton last weekend.  

He read a copy of the order for CBC News. "Service dogs will not be permitted in the mess and kitchen facilities, at PSP facilities, to include swimming pools, gymnasiums, field houses and ice arenas."

Stunned by news

Yetman said he was stunned to learn his companion of almost two years will no longer be allowed in the base gymnasium, where the sergeant used to take his two young daughters twice a week.

"It takes my freedom of movement away," he said.

On Wednesday, the chief of the defence staff issued a statement about Yetman's case.

"I support him having access to base facilities within the limits of reason and accommodating reasonable concerns of others who may be affected," General Jonathan Vance said. "I have directed that he be engaged in a sensitive way to work out how best to meet his needs. I think this is an unfortunate misunderstanding, but I believe it can be resolved with some care and understanding."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also weighed in, saying the Canadian Armed Forces is well-aware of the importance of service dogs to some soldiers.

Asked about Yetman's case, Sajjan said he had only recently been made aware of it.

"I don't have the exact details on it," he said, "but my staff is actually looking into that and I'll be getting a brief on it shortly. But rest assured, when it comes to the mental health of our troops, that is the absolute number one priority for me and the department."

Working to find a solution

CFB Edmonton wants to work with Yetman to find a solution to the problem, said Capt. Donna Riguidel, public affairs officer for 3rd Canadian Division Support Base Edmonton.

"Clearly this man, and the others who have emotional-support animals, they have a need for these animals, and we want to be sensitive to that and we want to accommodate it as much as possible. But we have to balance that with the other needs of people on the base. We do have some people who have severe allergies; there are other people who have phobias about dogs."

Standing Order 109  was actually drafted last fall, Riguidel said. It came about, she said, because someone brought a dog to an appointment on base, and another person there was allergic and had a severe reaction.

Riguidel said in Yetman's case there was a "misunderstanding" about what constitutes a service dog under Alberta regulations.

The order applies to service dogs certified by Assistance Dogs International, she said. Diego doesn't have ADI certification, which is required by the province, not the military.

Yetman said his dog is certified in the United States and has all the necessary training required by ADI.

"It's semantics," he said. "It's absolute semantics."