Anne Diamond: How ex-servicemen and women can battle stress with help from a canine companion
PUBLISHED: 12:05 06 September 2016 | UPDATED: 12:05 06 September 2016
(c) Michael Blann
I'm not particularly a dog lover but I have increased respect for our canine friends since seeing the amazing contribution to our life made by working dogs
from police dogs, guide dogs and forensic detection dogs right through to those trained to ‘sniff out’ disease in human beings - like cancer or diabetes, help autistic people and even, it is said, detect those who are about to die.
After the terrible night club massacre in Orlando, we all witnessed the work of ‘comfort dogs’, flown in from all over the USA to just be there, at the site where people were gathering to mourn. They come from an organisation which has registered an enormous list of dogs (and owners) which are good with people, and who are simply there to provide a sense of comfort. They appeared to be mostly Labradors, and wore vests that simply said ‘I am an assistance dog, pet me.’
It’s now recognised that stroking a dog (or cat, or rabbit - as you see in some nursing homes) relaxes people, de-stresses and brings down an elevated heart rate. We have such therapy dogs in the UK, too. And this week I met a dog which has saved her owner’s life - twice. Mia, a black and white collie cross, has been specially trained to help ex-servicemen who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. She is one of the first four-legged graduates of the charity Veterans with Dogs. Her owner, Mark, served in Northern Ireland during the troubles and for some 20 years struggled with undiagnosed PTSD, which then became much worse in the past few years, to the point that he contemplated suicide.
In fact Mia now knows her owner so well, she can sense changes in his behaviour, or his attitude. So much so, that she stopped him from taking an overdose not just once, but twice. He told me: “Once things were so bad, I had pills and a bottle of brandy ready. She sensed how I felt and jumped onto my lap and looked at me, as though asking: “What are you doing that for?” Mark now goes out and about, where previously he lacked confidence, and Mia is always with him. “It can be a real struggle to be in a crowded place. But I will have Mia with me and I feel more able. She senses if I am tense or nervous: her company and a lick on my hand gives me courage.”
Now Mark campaigns for increased awareness so that other veterans who, like him, suffer from PTSD can at least know there may be help for them. A sort of psychiatric help in the form of man’s best friend! Veterans With Dogs was set up five years ago by ex-serviceman Craig MacLellan who was also suffering from PTSD. He was undergoing a residential therapy course with the charity Combat Stress, when counsellors noticed the effect his pet Labrador was having not only on him, but other patients too.
That gave him the idea of setting up Veterans With Dogs, which has now provided around 60 former service personnel with assistance and companion dogs in the last three years. Craig says the referrals are coming in thick and fast. He points out - it’s no alternative to proper treatment, but for many veterans, it’s proved to be a huge help. For Mark and Mia, it certainly offers a compelling picture of how this simple scheme has proved life-saving.
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