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Dog fight

We’re not asking the question anymore if the dogs work—at least my team isn’t—because we already have very strong evidence.” So said Linzi Williamson in November 2023, as quoted in this issue’s feature story on veterans using mental health service dogs (see “The dogs of postwar,” page 32), an assistant professor in the department of psychology and health studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “It’s about trying to optimize and figure out the best path forward,” she continued, “not just for the veterans, but for the dogs.”

Williamson has co-published several studies on the topic in scientific journals during the last few years. Her conclusion is echoed by research by the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide and Military and Emergency Services Health Australia published in March 2023.

The lack of action resembles so many other bureaucratic fumbles in Canada’s modern military.

“Almost 90 per cent of veterans reported improvements in their post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety 12 months after being matched to an assistance dog,” its authors said in a release. “This study provides clear evidence that assistance dogs can play a key role in a veteran’s recovery from post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions, supporting existing treatments.”

So, while experts from around the world are convinced that service dogs can help veterans, and veterans themselves have anecdotally reported the same for more than a decade—as Defence Minister Erin O’Toole himself acknowledged in 2015—Veterans Affairs Canada still won’t fund their use. Its rationale? Its own research, despite finding “positive impacts for veterans with PTSD after acquiring the service dog including decreasing nightmares, improved sleep, fewer depressive symptoms and more social integration in the community,” had “limited results.”

Common sense be damned—the use of service dogs dates to the ninth century and the animals have been used to aid with psychiatric conditions for some three decades now—and scientific evidence ignored. The lack of action resembles so many other bureaucratic fumbles in Canada’s modern military (see “procurement, equipment, etc., etc., etc.”).

In the case of service dogs for veterans, not only is there an apparent lack of proof of effectiveness, according to VAC, but there’s also the hot potato issue of national training standards. Despite being tasked to develop them by the department in 2015, the Canadian General Standards Board, the federal agency responsible for such matters, announced, after three years of deliberation, it would not do so. It claimed its members were unable to reach a “consensus.” This despite the existence of several federal and provincial/territorial laws governing service dogs already.

The situation is, pardon the pun, a dog’s breakfast. VAC spokesperson Alex Wellstead told the CBC in 2018 that the department would, in the absence of rules from the federal board, develop its own. “We’re working to put in place standards, rapidly,” he said, “so that veterans have access to properly trained psychiatric service dogs.”

Six years later…nothing. Canadian veterans deserve better. Those who need service dogs should have them now. Let VAC prove they don’t work. All evidence suggests they do.


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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.