National Service Dogs organization explains new program for vets with PTSD

A service dog putting keys into his owner's hand.

Image via Wikipedia

Since writing about service dogs being trained to help vets suffering from PTSD, Mara Edwards of National Service Dogs has written to explain how the program works and how funds are raised to support the training of their specialized service dogs. It follows below, but before reading it, it’s important to know some of the history of the National Service Dogs organization.

In 1996, a desperate plea for help from, Maureen, the mother of a 3 year-old child with autism, Brodie, led to the development of the first and only service dog program focused on children with autism in Canada. In 1997, NSD matched Brodie with a quiet, sensitive black lab named Shade. The incredible success of this founding team brought popular attention from the media and the Geneva Centre for Autism, Toronto, Ontario.

From these humble beginnings the dedication of founders Heather and Chris Fowler and Danielle Forbes lead to the development of the first autism service dog program of its kind in the world. BONNIE

Skilled companion Dogs for Soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Mara Edwards

Just to clarify a couple things. The dogs we are placing are trained in a number of skills specific to the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While they are being placed as companions, which means no public access, they meet the standard of a service dog. If the veteran and clinician decide down the road public access with the dog would be the next step in their therapy, we will train the team and certify them.

National Service Dogs is an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI), which means the dogs are provided to the veteran at no cost and we are responsible for fundraising. The visually impaired are not expected to purchase their dog; nor should a Veteran with PTSD. We have been approached by Legions and individuals within the community to support our program before we even had the opportunity to actively pursue funding.

While there are limited studies showing the therapeutic value of service dogs, it’s early days yet. It’s also important to understand that in order to qualify as a service dog the dog must perform minimum three skills specific to the individual’s disorder that enables them to function in public. We not only plan on placing dogs with Veterans with PTSD but also in studying the results either through area treatment facilities or a local University.

One of the few studies on the effectiveness of service dogs is on our Autism Service Dog program. The U.S. has been very proactive in recognizing the potential of Service Dogs to assist Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. American veterans apply to their Veterans Affairs and, if they meet the criteria, are approved for a dog and referred to an Assistance Dogs International accredited organization in their area.

This is for a couple reasons but mainly a dog from an ADI-accredited organization is free to both the veteran and VA and it will meet the legislative requirements for public access anywhere in the U.S. Also, it ensures the ability and means are present to care for the dog.

While legislation regarding the use of dogs as assistive devices in public varies greatly across Canada, organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) meet all legislation. In fact, some provinces like Alberta simply state, “A dog that has qualifications resulting from the successful completion of a training program delivered by a school or institution accredited by Assistance Dogs International, Inc. has the qualifications of a service dog.”

So, any Veteran with PTSD or family member that would like to look into a service dog has the right to demand a fully qualified dog. If you are looking for a service dog, check the legislation in your province, it may mean you need to go to an ADI-accredited organization. At minimum, check out the ADI website to get an idea of what the standards are.

You should not have to buy your dog.

Lastly, this is a form of therapy, and you should be discussing it with your treating clinician to decide if this is right for you.

With websites like yours, Bonnie, we can raise awareness so that those treating the Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will learn more about the other options available. Thanks!!!

Mara Edwards
National Service Dogs

How program for skilled companion dogs for soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder works:

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?PTSD is a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, particularly those that threaten life. It can affect people of any age, culture or gender. Traumatic stress can be seen as part of a normal human response to intense experiences. In the majority of people, the symptoms reduce or disappear over the first few months, particularly with the help of caring family members and friends. In a significant minority, the symptoms do not seem to resolve quickly and in some cases may continue to cause problems for the rest of the person’s life.PTSD is characterized by three main groups of problems. They can be classified under the headings of intrusive, avoidance and arousal symptoms.

Intrusive Symptoms of PTSD:
•Distressing memories or images of the incident;
•Nightmares and flashbacks;
•Physical symptoms, such as sweating, increased heart rate, or muscle tension

Skilled Companion Dogs are trained to “visit” and “nudge” the individual and provide a tactile distraction from symptoms and have proven to be quite useful in emotional overload situations. In addition, for those experiencing nightmares, night terrors, hypnologic hallucinations or flashbacks, tactile stimulation can provide a vitally important reality affirmation. Physical symptoms such as sweating, increased heart rate or muscle tension can also be reduced by massaging the dog.

Avoidance/Numbing Symptoms of PTSD:
•Trying to avoid any reminders of the trauma;
•Gaps in memory;
•Losing interest in normal activities of daily living;
•Feeling cut-off or detached from loved ones;
•Feeling flat or numb; and
•Difficulty imagining a future.

Skilled Companion Dogs are non-judgmental and provide calm, consistent companionship to the Veteran. The dogs are active and require daily care and training to maintain their skills. Taking care of the dog’s daily needs brings routine back into the Veteran’s life, gives them a reason to get out of the house and engage in activities of daily living.

Arousal Symptoms of PTSD:
•Anger and irritability;
•Concentration problems;
•Constantly on the look-out for signs of danger; and
•Jumpy, easily startled.

Skilled Companion Dogs provide important feedback to individuals suffering from these types of symptoms by helping them gauge the safety of their surroundings. The dogs are trained to make the individual feel more secure in their environment. For example, the dogs are trained to “block.” This means the dog will stand perpendicularly in front of the veteran to keep other people at a distance, giving them the additional personal space they need to feel secure. The dogs are also taught “cover.” This means the dog will sit or lay facing backward by the veteran’s side and be able to alert them to people approaching from behind. The dogs are also taught a search command. This involves the dog “searching” the house to ensure it’s safe; thereby, helping to decrease the veteran’s anxiety when they feel nervous or are recovering from a nightmare or flashback.

Applications are available by referral only. Please contact for more information or at 519-623-4188, ex20.

Please go to the National Service Dog website to get full details of its history and services.


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan vets, Canadian Armed Forces, federal government, Homecoming Vets, post traumatic stress disorder, veterans' affairs, veterans' assistance programs and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to National Service Dogs organization explains new program for vets with PTSD

  1. tina blondin says:

    hello i’m a 33 year old women who has been stuggling with post traumatic stress disorder for years i’ve been raped repeadidly which brought in my dog who has been trained in keeping me safe my husband became ill after the lost of our child to the point he committed suicide in front of me with a cut off 12 gage after beating me to the point i had barely no clothes on which bailey my dog took the remaining of the beating due to the fact that i own a dog who never leaves my side and allowes me piece of mind whithout him i can no longer sleep i do not feel safe in this world i’ve had to endure living in my car as i have been refused housing.. not only am i the victim but have been victimized of the only way i can cope with the traumatic event i will never be doggless for the remainder of my life please help me license my dog who has been by my side for the past 11 yrs the reason i’ve managed to cope and survive this long is because he is at my side

    • Lara Hamilton says:

      It is not right that you should have to endure so much. I hope that with the help of your dog you continue to heal. I am sending positive thoughts your way.

  2. Bonnie Toews says:

    Tina, a veterans advocate will be in touch with you to see what can be done.


  3. Bob Graham says:

    Its shamefull and disgusting that we don’t support our Veterans with the programs that will help them through the tough times. I suggest we all send our MP’s a note to show our support for these worthy causes. I sincerely hope the Service Dogs for Veterans gets the financial aid it requires to supply our Veterans with companions to help them out. Recently read “Until Tuesday” about an American Soldiers life after Iraq and his Service Dog. The account left me ashamed of what we do to our soldiers . I hope we see changes come quickly

  4. disabled says:

    I am a 47 y/o woman who has been struggling with PTSD, Anxiety Disorder and Agoraphobia for 14 years, mostly working on this alone as up until the last few years I was told there was no help for those with PTSD.
    Just 8 months ago I adopted a beautiful dog (huskey/beagle cross) from rescue and he has changed my life to the point I can go out for short walks and my anxiety has lowered immensely. Also the routine my dog requires and care helps maintain a routine for myself, I must take care of him so avoiding going out on bad days is not an option although I do take shorter walks, more often at these times.
    Since being with him I also have not blanked out while outside (again the added feeling of safety as well as being protective of the dog) and tend not to lose as much time or disassociate. I know he is not the solution but what a huge difference in my life he has made. I also do not feel as isolated or alone as he is very good company.
    I would recommend a dog for those with PTSD.

    Thank you!

  5. Edward Hernandez says:

    I am a 43 y/o vet from the Gulf War. I have a Belgian Malinoise Shepard. (The breed typically used in K9 Mlitary Police) Is there a way to certify him? I suffer from PTSD, and he does seem to be my medium sized rock.

    • Edward, are you Canadian or American? If Canadian, you could go to the website referred to in this article to find out what the procedure is for training and certifying a service dog specifically as a companion for those suffering from PTSD.


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