Nova Scotia

Federal study on PTSD service dogs not sitting well with some advocates

First phase of study found nine positive effects of service dogs on symptoms of PTSD and two 'major undesirable effects.'

'VAC is fiddling while Rome burns,' says Royal Canadian Air Force veteran

Medric Cousineau says his own service dog, Thai, changed his life in 2012. He says she can sense when he has a dissociative episode and will start bumping into him if he doesn't pay attention to her. (CBC)

Some veterans advocates aren't pleased with the results of the first phase of a federal study intended to assess the effectiveness and safety of psychiatric service dogs used by people who live with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study, commissioned by Veterans Affairs Canada through the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, found nine positive effects of service dogs on symptoms of PTSD and two "major undesirable effects."

The positive effects include the detection, prevention and control of crisis, improved sleep, reduction of nightmares, better concentration, improved self-confidence and increased social participation.

The undesirable effects are difficulty accessing public spaces and knowing how to react when faced with that difficulty, and stigmatization.

Study panned

"Those two items don't come into play if you're hiding in a wood shed or living in your basement or cut off from society," said Medric Cousineau, a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran and co-founder of Paws Fur Thought, an organization that pairs service dogs with veterans and first responders.

Cousineau placed 10 of the service dogs used in the study.

He said his own life changed dramatically after he was lowered onto a fishing vessel in distress off the coast of Newfoundland in 1986 to rescue five fishermen, two of whom had been seriously injured.

Couinseau said his own service dog, Thai, changed his life in 2012.

Veterans advocate and former Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer said Veterans Affairs Canada needs to do a better job of educating the public about what service dogs do. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"If I start to have a dissociative episode, she can smell the change in my biochemistry and she'll start bumping into me and if I don't pay attention to her, she will escalate her behaviour and become pretty darn animated to get me to get back in the game," he said.

Veterans advocate and former Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer disagreed with the findings.

"I would assume that the people who made those assessments don't have a service dog themselves," he said.

'They're not therapy dogs'

Twenty-two stakeholders were interviewed for the study, six of whom were veterans who live with PTSD.

"When it comes to the stigmatization, that's just an image problem that DVA has," said Stoffer.

"What they should be doing is educating the general public about what service dogs really are. They're not therapy dogs, they are service dogs."

In addition to the efficacy study, the federal government is also working to establish national standards to ensure psychiatric service dogs are properly trained.

Study to be completed in 2018

"I understand there's way more research to be done beyond what they've done, but in the interim VAC is fiddling while Rome burns," said Cousineau.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Canada said "VAC has undertaken this evidence-based approach to ensure that service dogs for veterans meet acceptable training and behavioural standards."

The spokesperson said that evidence could help make the case for funding for service dogs. The full study is expected to be complete by July 2018.