A lifeline for Veterans: Michael Richards and his service dog Felix

Service dogs like Felix are proving invaluable in helping veterans deal with mental issues and picking up their social lives. Slavo Kutas / Global News

Help for Canadian armed forces veterans takes various forms, and for Michael Richards his labradoodle Felix is more than just a pet. He’s a lifeline.

After 21 years of service across the globe, Richards was diagnosed with PTSD. However, his journey toward healing took a new trajectory with the companionship of his service dog.

After his last tour in 2008, Richards noticed that something was wrong with him:

“When I got that diagnosis in 2009, it made sense to me. I did not want to be around, had trouble interacting with people and ran into some major issues. As part of my recovery, my doctor recommended a service dog to me.”

Working with the dog has helped Richards make great strides in his recovery process.

“When I went to pick up my first dog, Sadie, it took me two hours to work up to courage to go talk to the trainer. Now, seven years of service dog later, I am doing talks in front of my little girl’s class and doing interviews. That is how far my healing process has brought me.”

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Richards’ story shows how service dogs can help individuals cope with mental health challenges. His first service dog, Sadie, and now Felix, have been instrumental in helping him navigate daily life post-service. Felix is trained to help Richards interpret his own signals.

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“When I have a flashback, he will know that. If I am staring at the wall for a few minutes straight, Felix will notice and come put his muzzle on my leg, which will put pressure on me and eventually, I will come back. At night, he wakes me up from my bad dreams.”

Richards and Felix are together 24 hours a day, helping him recognize mental health signals and avoiding crises. Slavo Kutas / Global News

The Royal Canadian Legion has recognized the significance of service dogs over the years and funds programs to assist veterans like Richards.

“Every year when Canadians buy poppies or raise money, the funds raised go to what is called the Poppy fund,” explains Malcolm Young, the Saskatoon Remembrance Day services program director. “We use those funds to support veterans’ initiatives, of which service dogs is one. We support them in a financial way and leave the programs to be run by professionals.”

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However, despite the evident benefits, there’s a lack of understanding with the general public in how to interact with veterans and their service dogs, leading to potentially stressful situations.

“Veterans are often asked intrusive questions in public spaces,” says Linzi Williamson, Assistant Professor in psychology and health studies. “Questions like ‘Why do you need the dog?’ can be really difficult to answer.”

Richards emphasizes the importance of recognizing the person over the dog and educating the public on appropriate interactions.

“The best thing to do when you see a service dog is to ignore it and recognize the person. Think of the dog as a wheelchair,” he explains. “You don’t go up to people and play with their wheelchair or ask them what kind of wheelchair they have.”

Despite the clear distinction that Felix is a working dog when wearing his vest, Richards acknowledges the challenges he faces when people, particularly the elderly, tend to ignore the signs and attempt to interact with Felix.

“When Felix is working, nobody is allowed to touch him. He is a medical aid for me,” Richards emphasizes. “My daughter loves Felix, so he’s also a family pet, but she knows when Felix is working, she is not to touch him. She will even tell other people, and she is 11 years old.”

The bond between Richards and Felix is more than just owner and pet. It’s a lifeline and a testament to the power of these trained service dogs in aiding veterans’ recovery.

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“For now, I can’t do without him,” says Richards. “Maybe in the future, I will be able to go without a dog.”

Michael Richards’ journey exemplifies the significance of service dogs and the need for better awareness and understanding among the public on how to interact respectfully with these trained companions.

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