The constant threat of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices took a toll on Kevin Berry. The 29-year-old returned to Canada after six months in Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"My friends and family were expecting a 20-year-old kid to come back and that's just not the case after you've been to a place like that," he said.
This month, however, Mr. Berry and a handful of new veterans will receive some furry therapeutic relief because of a new Vancouver-based nonprofit.
Citadel Therapy Canine Society adopts dogs from local animal shelters, trains them to be professional service dogs, and delivers them to new veterans in need of canine companionship and therapeutic assistance. Citadel Canine's first batch will be named in honour of the late Canadian Army veteran Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Wesson.
"The dog makes the veteran do things they weren't doing before," said Citadel Canine founder Brian Archer. "Now you've got somebody you've got to walk, you've got to feed, you've got to bathe, you've got to pay attention to. You can't be sitting in your room. … Sparky needs to go outside."
Diana Miller, owner of Helping Paws, and her team of trainers in Creston, B.C., adopted the dogs from Creston Pet and Welfare Society shelters and have already begun training them according to standards set by Assistance Dog International.
When the dogs arrive in Vancouver, Ms. Miller will meet with the veterans and match them with the appropriate dog based on, among other things, energy level, lifestyle and personality.
"I want the dog to be able to bond to their new person because these people really need that companionship," said Ms. Miller.
The dogs and their owners will meet as a group once a week for 14 weeks to complete their service training. The dogs will learn more task-oriented commands tailored to the needs of their veteran owners and the veterans will learn how to groom and handle their dogs and administer pet first aid.
There is a long history of anecdotal evidence supporting the effectiveness of canine therapy, according to Dr. Stanley Coren, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at University of British Columbia and recent author of Do Dogs Dream? Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, noted as early as the late 19th century that the presence of small pets reduced depression in her patients, particularly veterans.
Dr. Coren said physiological studies have also shown that petting a friendly dog can lower blood pressure, regulate breathing, relax muscles and reduce stress-related hormones in the body.
These effects occur "relatively instantaneously," said Dr. Coren, whereas anti-depressants like Prozac require three to six weeks to take effect.
Despite this, however, Veterans Affairs Canada does not currently cover the costs associated with canine therapy for PTSD.
Citadel Canine provides the service dogs to new veterans free of charge.
"I just got a sense that a lot of guys and gals are struggling … because of a change in their circumstance since they left the military," said Mr. Archer.
Mr. Berry, who provided security and performed patrols in Kabul with the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment in 2003-2004, is looking forward to meeting his dog.
"I can't begin to tell you how lonely PTSD can be. It's a one person show at the end of the day. You can have all the support in the world … but the true battle is in your own brain," he said.