Animal therapy offers hope for veterans struggling with PTSD

Service Dog Helps Wounded Veteran Cope With PTSD
Army veteran Brad Schwarz (L) watches as his service dog Panzer gets a check up at Southwest Animal Care Center May 3, 2012 in Palos Hills, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images

TORONTO – Canada’s 12-year mission in Afghanistan is over, but the effects of the war will continue to be felt as soldiers and veterans deal with various mental health issues.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – one of the most common mental health ailments in the military – can take years to appear. It can manifest in a number of different ways, including depression, anxiety, sleepless nights, anger and mood disorders.

As recent military and government campaigns aim to raise awareness of mental health within the Canadian Armed Forces, Canadian charities are hoping a wider acceptance of animal therapy becomes one of the keys to helping soldiers and veterans with PTSD.

Cpl. Johnny Langevin is an Intelligence Operator in the military based out of Kingston, Ont., and Wounded Warriors Canada’s provincial coordinator for Nova Scotia. He goes to work every day with a yellow lab named Hank – and he has a message of hope for soldiers struggling with PTSD who may be reluctant to speak out.

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“There’s a lot of guys out there that have it that don’t want to come forward because they’re afraid,” Langevin told Global News. But he’s sharing his story of how a service dog has helped him and urging others in the military to seek help.

Langevin did a tour in Afghanistan in 2006 as part of the Armoured Reconnaissance task group; Langevin’s tour coincided with Operation Medusa, a Canadian-led offensive that, while it was considered a tactical victory for NATO forces, saw the death of 12 Canadians.

“It was a hard tour,” said Langevin. “Guys were dying left, right and centre, every day almost. I lost a lot of friends.”

When he returned from Kandahar, he noticed that things weren’t right.

“I just had a hard time when I got back turning off the hyper-vigilance, turning off the switch,” he said. Langevin was diagnosed with PTSD in 2007.

Facing medical release from the military, Langevin was told to prepare a backup plan to transition out of the military.

“I really couldn’t come to grips with what I would do outside the military,” he said. “I’m third generation military, I’ve lived on a base my entire life because both my parents were in, and I had never really given it a thought of what I would do.”

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Langevin came across non-profit organization Wounded Warriors Canada and its program Courageous Companions, which trains and places service dogs with veterans struggling with PTSD. The charity covers the full cost, including flying the member to Winnipeg and the service dog, which can cost upwards of $10,000 to $20,000 depending on how extensive the dog’s training is.

Langevin flew to Winnipeg to meet the crew at Courageous Companions and two-year-old Hank. After spending a week there forming a bond with Hank, Langevin flew back to Kingston with his service dog.

Cpl. Johnny Langevin pictured with his service dog Hank.
Cpl. Johnny Langevin pictured with his service dog Hank. Courtesy of Cpl. Johnny Langevin
Courageous Companions service dog Hank, pictured with Cpl. Johnny Langevin and his regiment.
Courageous Companions service dog Hank, pictured with Cpl. Johnny Langevin and his regiment. Courtesy of Cpl. Johnny Langevin

Langevin suffers from depression, panic attacks and night terrors related to his PTSD. He said Hank helps him in a variety of ways, such as waking him up when he’s having a night terror, accompanying him to do errands, even getting his medication when Langevin is having an anxiety attack.

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“When I first got back [from Afghanistan], I had a hard time going grocery shopping or being out in crowds, I had severe anxiety attacks,” said Langevin.

But now, Hank goes with him and acts as a buffer, keeping distance between Langevin and other people.

Langevin said the response to Hank at work has been outstanding, saying his regiment has been completely supportive, with many of his peers asking where they can also get a service dog or asking about the help Hank provides him.

While not every position within the military would allow for a service dog, Langevin would like to see more support within the military for service dogs as an actual feasible treatment.

“As long as it’s not disrupting the workplace I’d like to see the military fully come out and support it,” said Langevin.

Animal therapy in Canada’s military

Currently, the Canadian military does not prescribe animal therapy to military members because officials believe there isn’t enough evidence to support it being used as a treatment.

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If a military member wants to take advantage of animal therapy services offered outside of the military, through charities like Wounded Warriors and Courageous Companions, they must get permission from their chain of command.

In Langevin’s case, his medical officer had to write in his application letter to get Hank that he wouldn’t be granted special leave to go to pick up the dog and that the military would not cover any of the costs associated with the animal.

But military officials say they would like to see animal therapy researched further to see if it could help veterans cope with PTSD and other mental health issues.

“There’s a mischaracterization that we at health services are against anything,” said Col. Rakesh Jetly, a senior psychiatrist and mental health advisor to the Canadian Forces’ surgeon general.

“We’re not against anything, we’re pro where the evidence is and where it takes us.”

What’s unclear is how many evidence-based studies are required before animal therapy may be adopted more widely.

In May 2013, then-Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney announced that the federal government would research the benefit of veterans using service animals to help deal with mental health issues.

“I have heard veterans across Canada loud and clear, we know there is interest in animal therapy and we are exploring its use for veterans,” said Blaney.

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The government struck up two partnerships with St. John Ambulance Canada and Can Praxis to study the use of service dogs and horses, respectively.

Alberta-based Can Praxis uses horses to help Canadian Forces members recover from the experiences of war and repair their relationships with family members.

The program uses horses for a variety of reasons. “Horses understand the need for social interaction,” said Can Praxis founder and 28-year veteran Steve Critchley. Being prey animals, horses are hyper-vigilant, said Critchley. “The horses can pick up on emotions and feelings.”

Reacting to human body language, Critchley said the horses give the program leaders clues into what is going on with the military members and how they are communicating.

“With a horse, if you come on too strong and aggressive, it will take off. We show them through exercises, that if they approach things differently the horse will come back, because the horse will believe that [they’re] worthwhile to trust and respect,” said Critchley, adding that these lessons also apply to how they interact with their family.

Because the program founders understand that re-entering civilian life comes with significant financial challenges, Can Praxis covers the full cost for veterans and their families to attend the three-day program, including travel, housing, food and all related expenses.

“I know people that have gone to Can Praxis and have come back changed people. They have something to live for,” Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer told Global News.

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“Can Praxis should be talked about from the rooftops across Canada – the more we talk about it, the more we can help these people,” Stoffer said. “It’s a pharmaceutical-free, free way to help veterans who are suffering with PTSD.”

Since Blaney’s announcement, a study about equine assisted therapy and Can Praxis was published in the Canadian Military Journal.

According to a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs, the department is currently reviewing the results of the Can Praxis program and “expect to review the results of the St. John Ambulance Canada pilot in Fall 2014.”

“Much of what has been said and written lately about the potential benefits of animal-assisted interventions for veterans and others with a mental health condition is encouraging. [Veterans Affairs] will continue to assess and evaluate the actual results of such innovative approaches,” the spokesperson told Global News.

Hope and help for Canada’s soldiers

Despite the negative attention the military and federal government has received in their handling of mental health issues in the military and among veterans, Langevin wants Forces members to know that help is available.

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“There are struggles. But the more awareness that gets out there, the more [PTSD] gets accepted as an actual injury,” said Langevin. “There’s nothing wrong with the member, it’s just like if you had a broken leg – there’s certain things you need to do to get better and carry on.”

And he urges Forces members who may be afraid to speak up to seek out programs outside of the military, like the ones offered by Wounded Warriors.

“There’s a lot of guys that are taking that final step and ending their lives and I want to stop that, I don’t want to see that anymore, not when there’s things that can be done.”