Veterans are considered heroes by many, but to veteran Mike Richards, his service dog Felix is the one who saved his life.
“I wouldn’t be here without a service dog,” said Richards.
Richards got out of the military in 2008 and was diagnosed with severe PTSD in 2009.
“And at that time, I didn’t really think life was worth living.”
But he wanted to be there for his daughter to see her graduate and walk down the aisle.
Richards got his first service dog in 2016, and has been a part of training and research programs ever since.
“The human-animal bond and the strong social support it provides can be the primary mental health support for people,” said PhD student researcher in the University of Saskatchewan’s Office of One Health & Wellness, Alexandria Pavelich.
“We need people to start realizing service dogs can improve our mental health.”
According to the Canadian government, suicide rates in the Canadian military are more prevalent than in the general population.
Male veterans overall had a 1.4 times higher risk of dying by suicide, and women, 1.9 times.
A recent University of Saskatchewan first-of-its-kind study was conducted by Pavelich which found that service dogs can help veterans in many ways.
Pavelich interviewed and followed the lives of four veterans and their service dogs over a 16-month period to see if there were any changes to suicidal thoughts, PTSD symptoms and substance use.
The study was completed as part of a broader study led by University of Saskatchewan sociology professor Colleen Dell.
Not only did veterans have reduced suicidal thoughts, but they also felt like they mattered.
“Once they had this dog in their life, they started to improve in every capacity,” said Pavelich.
Pavelich will be sharing her findings at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences(Congress 2022), Canada’s largest academic gathering and one of the most comprehensive in the world in hopes of more people adopting the hiring of service dogs for veterans.
Researchers also found there are many reasons why these dogs’ dedicated service helps humans with chronic pain, addictions and mental health.
“There’s the technical skills that the dogs have, right? Whether they’re helping wake someone up of a nightmare or what have you… and then there’s the bond component,” said Dell.
Lindsay Mitchell is another veteran whose doctor had recommended he get a service side kick at the beginning of 2020.
Now he would not want to spend a day without his dog and he said Koda is better than any drug.
“I was heavily medicated for a very long time and this is by far the most positive difference of any treatment so far,” said Mitchell.
The findings are now part of a toolkit for service dog organizations to educate trainers on how dogs can play an important role in substance use recovery and peer support.