articles by Medric Cousineau
as appeared in the Chief of Military Personnel Newsletter
Eyes Wide Open: Questions to ask yourself before getting a service dog
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As many of you are aware there is an immense amount of media attention being shone on the subject of service dogs for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Much to some people’s chagrin, I am partly responsible for this since I have strongly and vociferously advocated for their use. The reason is quite simple. Two years ago, I was paired with my service dog, Thai, and she has had a dramatic impact on my life. In fact, my family credits her with my largest battle victories in my war with post-traumatic stress disorder that stretches back decades.
But there is a serious rub: getting paired with a service dog is going to have a huge impact on your life in ways that you may never have considered. The purpose of this article is to point some of the issues out and provide the basis for the start of the decision tree in regards to obtaining and living with a service dog.
First, let me point out a very important point: A service dog is not the panacea that is going to fix all that is wrong in your world if you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. A service dog is an adjunct therapy, to be used in conjunction with traditional therapies, such as counselling and medications. In a follow up article, I will discuss the upside, which is not insignificant, but first, I owe it to you to point out considerations that you may not have thought about, or if you have, may not appreciate the magnitude of or the level of commitment required.
So here are five questions that you need to consider before obtaining a service dog:
1. Are you prepared for the financial commitment that can last from ten to fifteen years?
2. Are you ready for the 24-7-365 needs of your service animal, no exceptions?
3. Are you willing to accept the responsibility for continuing the training required for your service dog?
4. Are you prepared to deal with conflict?
5. Are you ready to become a focal point of attention in public?
In the interest of brevity, I will try and address the points succinctly and the responses are by no means exhaustive.
Financial Considerations: Beyond the initial costs of obtaining a service dog, there is an ongoing financial commitment including food, grooming, toys and veterinarian care.
Daily Needs: Your service dog will need feeding, exercise, play time and to be taken out to attend to the calls of nature. This is every single day, no exceptions, rain or shine. Additionally, does your housing situation lend itself to life with a dog?
Continuation Training: Your service animal will have an amazing skill-set and those skills need to be practiced and expanded upon. A significant component of their training centers on public access training, and you as the handler have an obligation to ensure that your service dog has the opportunity to practice those skills. Additionally, your dog is a living, sentient being that will, in time, try and exert its personality into the team dynamic and this is not always positive. This will require oversight on your part to ensure your partner does not develop bad habits.
Conflicts: Even though your rights for public access with your service dog are protected by law, there is still a huge segment of society that is unaware of those protections. You must be prepared to deal with the ensuing confrontations when somebody, somewhere inevitably challenges your rights. If you struggle with anger management problems as I do, you have got to be prepared. It happens, sadly, far too frequently, and as service dogs for dealing with invisible disabilities become more widespread, hopefully the situations will diminish or, in time, completely dissipate.
Attention trap: Perhaps the single worst thing you can ever hope to do is hide in public with a service dog. I can tell you from firsthand experience that this is not going to happen, period. Service dogs attract attention from kids and adults in every single place that you will go. Since your service dog will accompany you to places that dogs are not traditionally seen, you will attract attention and not all of it positive (see point above). Furthermore you will have to be prepared to become a service dog statesman and mental health ambassador as you will often get asked questions that would never have arisen before obtaining your service dog. In short, you will be turning an invisible issue into something very concrete and unavoidably real. The service dog school will help you prepare for these eventualities but they cannot cover every possible scenario, and you will be the center of attention, like it or not.
If you have made it to this point and you believe you are prepared for the 24-7-365 commitment required to become a service dog handler, and you are able to deal with all the obligations, financial and otherwise, and are willing to deal with being the center of attention, good or bad, when you appear in public, then you are ready to take the next step in the process. Getting a service dog should be undertaken in consultation with your doctors and mental health care team. It is not inconsequential as it will change your family dynamic, and having the support of those you live with is absolutely paramount. The addition of the service dog will add another degree of stress and complexity to an already complicated home front as you struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the follow-up piece to this article, I will address the benefits of your service dog, and delve into some of the nuances in more detail. Until then, if I may, “Keep Calm and Walk the Dog” is a mantra that has served me well on my road to recovery and coming to terms with my new normal.
Medric “Cous” Cousineau, SC, CD, Capt (Ret) – Royal Canadian Air Force,
Co-founder Paws Fur Thought & Thai the Service Dog.
Service Dogs part 2
Service Dogs can be a very useful tool for many people, but the procedures for obtaining one will require a lot of work on your part. I learned this first-hand from my own experience of being paired with my service dog. Hopefully, the answers to the following questions will help.
How do I get permission to have a service dog? A serious heart-to-heart with your healthcare team is required to enlist their support and to obtain the required documentation. This documentation lets the service dog school know that your healthcare team believes you are ready to undertake the challenges associated with a service dog. The letter also provides the legal basis for you to have a service dog to assist with your disability. Ensuring this documentation reflects your specific needs is crucial, as service dogs are specifically trained to do at least three tasks for their handler that they are unable to complete themselves.
What service dog certification standards exist? At present, there are no national service dog certification standards that exist in Canada. The Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian General Standards Board, are in discussions to start the process to develop those standards which will need input from other stakeholder groups, such as the Seeing Eye dog community. According to the Canadian General Standards Board, this process will likely take a couple of years to complete. In the meantime, each province has a different set of requirements for certification standards.
What is the value of service dog training? By informing your service dog training school of how your symptoms manifest and how they impact your daily life, the school will help you teach your dog how to deal with your specific needs. In my case, I had suffered from a recurring night terror at 0430 hrs daily for decades. To address this issue, the school trained my service dog to wake me from these episodes before things got into high gear.
Is service dog training difficult? How can I help ensure success? As a service dog handler, you are taking on the complex and often stressful job of training a service dog. Going into this, you must be aware of your abilities to do so in your current mental state, and seek support if needed. In my particular case, when I was paired with my service dog, I was in no shape, mentally or emotionally, to commit to a dog’s training. My wife accompanied me to the school to help me keep track of what the dogs skills were and what was required on my end of the leash. As with all mental health care, a support system is key.
This sounds like a lot of work! Is a service dog really worth all this trouble? I can’t speak for everyone, but my service dog was an absolute lifesaving game changer for me and my family. My injuries date back to 1986, and in the time between that date and obtaining my service dog in 2012, we had dealt with a lot of the negative issues that can surround Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The depths of darkness and despair that can accompany Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is hard to fathom unless you have been there, and often times the injured wind up standing on the brink, contemplating terminally irreversible decisions. But then something happened when I got paired with my service dog. The non-judgmental, here-and-now lifestyle of a dog opened the door for me to start dealing with several aspects of my trauma and diagnosis. Also, my dog’s need for both exercise and public access skills training got me out of the house and into public. By and large, dog owners are a very social group, and I found myself engaged in conversations about my dog that had nothing to do with me.
Slowly, our confidence in each other grew and our effectiveness as a team started paying huge dividends for me and my family. My dog has added a degree of laughter to our lives that had been missing for years, and now we plan our days around things like ball playing sessions and walks where she gets to just be a dog and fill her nose with the scents of nature.
Since it is impossible for me to go back in time and change the events that lead to my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the difficulties that I had with certain treatment modalities, I have no desire to get caught in the quagmire of what-ifs. But know this to be true: having been paired with my service dog has had huge dramatic, positive results in my recovery, including going back to conventional therapies which are all a necessary part of a holistic healing process.
Medric “Cous” Cousineau, SC, CD, Capt (Ret) – Royal Canadian Air Force,
Co-founder Paws Fur Thought & Thai the Service Dog
Note: Currently, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces do not endorse any particular Service Dog training program. However, Canadian Forces Health Services Group is collaborating with the Canadian General Standards Board and many stakeholder groups to develop national standards for training of Service Dogs and for screening of those who request a Service Dog. This is to ensure the appropriate matching of Service Dog and affected CAF member or veteran. The Canadian Forces Health Services Group follows literature concerning the efficacy of treatments very closely and recognizes that non-medical measures, such as Service Dogs, may be effective adjuncts to regular medical and mental health care in certain cases. However, before acquiring a Service Dog, Canadian Forces Health Services Group stresses that all CAF members should be fully informed of the potential effects that acquiring a Service Dog can have on their future mental health treatment and their military career.