-By Paul de Groot and Farha Akhtar
Paul de Groot first met Raven on a Saturday night in September, 2018. He was walking along the Saskatchewan River with Service Dog trainer Colleen Kidd, who had brought with her a young, black and white Border Collie named Raven. Raven had been in and out of foster care, owned by a family and then returned. She was eventually picked up by Colleen who was looking for animals to be part of an innovative research project she is involved in with the Canadian Service Dog organization AUDEAMUS. The team is looking at the impact of service dogs on the lives of veterans who problematically use opioids and other substances. Paul, a Canadian veteran, wanted to see if a service dog could help him cope with the symptoms of his PTSD. He was somewhat reluctant to be paired with Raven after having had a negative experience with a previous service dog that wasn’t a good match, but he thought he would give it another try.
At the end of their walk, Colleen handed the leash to Paul and said, “Raven is with you.”
That was the start of a journey of Paul and Raven learning to live a life in sync. It’s been a journey that has been challenging: a test of perseverance that at times can feel exhausting both emotionally and mentally. But it has been an experience Paul says has been well worth it.
Paul de Groot joined the Canadian Forces just after his 18th birthday in 1985. His successful military career spanned more than 18 years and took him on a variety of international missions. Yet, like many veterans, upon leaving the military in 2010, Paul needed assistance and support for his PTSD and the problematic substance use that resulted from it. A psychiatrist suggested Paul investigate the possibility of getting a medical companion dog, and a case manager at Veterans Affairs mentioned the AUDEAMUS program. Paul would eventually connect with the AUDEAMUS Program and would meet Dr. Colleen Dell, a researcher who was looking for veterans to partner with on a study supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM).
The transition to working with a service dog was filled with challenges. Veterans and their dogs go through an intensive training program in order for the dogs to qualify to be service animals. The first month is a critical time developmentally. The bonding between service dog and handler is crucial and greatly influences how the animal will adjust to its support role. Paul says he felt pessimistic at first that Raven would actually make a difference.
“I didn’t want to like her because I was already putting my back against the wall,” he says, “I was tired, frustrated. I thought, ‘Great. A dog’. And then they said she had a minor medical concern.”
“But by the end of the week, I thought, maybe I can do this. We just blended well.”
Training a service animal is an arduous task. In this unique project, the co-principal investigator of the project, Colleen Dell and members of her research team all underwent the same AUDEAMUS training program alongside the five veterans. The team determined a patient-oriented research approach would provide them with greater insight and understanding of the health needs of the veterans.
“In a way, we were wanting to experience as best we could the ‘patient experience’,” explains Dr Dell.
“Though clearly, that can never be. The veterans bring all the expertise. They have the experience of trauma and military service none of our team members hold. They also bring their experience foremost, as a patient with PTSD, substance use disorders or problematic substance use. They have the experience of moving through the health care system – both the civilian and military systems.”
“We learned a lot working alongside the veterans as well as the dogs. It is through that learning that our project was shaped in ways we would never have conceptualized ourselves.”
Paul says the more he worked with Raven, the more he started to see small, but significant improvements in his overall well-being.
“When you are connected to the dog, you don’t immediately see that she is doing something for you.”
“For example, I was ramping up a lot. I was speaking to my parents and my arm started flailing. Raven came and she nipped me under my arm so I completely forgot what the argument was.”
Paul says working with the other veterans, he has seen the vital role service dogs play to help veterans such as himself carry out simple, daily tasks.
“Some of us have balance issues because we are on a lot of medications. When you have the harness on, the dog provides you with physical stability.”
“Some of the veterans don’t like to be around the public. The dog will create a buffer behind them when they go to the store so they don’t feel that anxiety. Some guys have issues with noise. The dog is there and jumps into their lap if they hear a sudden noise, and they grasp onto their dog like it is a lifeline. The dogs are all trained for the unique needs of the veteran”
“For me, one of the greatest things Raven has helped me with is developing a sense of mindfulness and being able to concentrate and focus on certain things. So, for example, one of the researchers says ‘Try naming the seven dwarves if you feel yourself ramping’. But that doesn’t work for those of us who have been in the military where you act first and ask questions later.”
“So you focus on your dog. You focus your fingers on the texture of the fur. That brings your mind back to a place where you are comfortable again. You forget what you were stewing on.”
Today, Paul says the work he and Raven put towards training has resulted not only in improvements in his own life, but has developed an incredible connection and friendship between them. He says his hope with the research program is to see the AUDEAMUS program expanded.
“It is important people understand what a service dog is all about. These dogs are helping you make a better, brighter future for yourself. I am hoping to create greater public awareness. Service dogs are helping to create a more positive environment for everyone.”
“People see us wearing a veteran jacket, and they think they have to stay away from us because they think we are screwed up. Some of us are, but we don’t mean to be. I think there will be greater understanding if people see us with our service dogs and understand the impact trauma can have.”
“We are veterans helping veterans. We want to provide veterans with more, better support.”
As for he and Raven, Paul says he doesn’t feel comfortable going anywhere without Raven. She brings a sense of calm and comfort he says he has not felt in a long time.
Paul points out the little, white tuft of fur on Raven’s chest that has an uncanny resemblance to the batman symbol.
“She is my own personal superhero,” he says of Raven.
“I don’t know where I would be without her. This has been a huge awakening.”
Paul de Groot is a Retired Captain with the Canadian Forces. He is a member of the CIHR and CRISM-funded research team, “The Impact of Service Dogs in the Lives of Veterans Who Problematically Use Opioids.” Farha Akhtar is a Communications Specialist with the Saskatchewan Centre for Patient-Oriented Research in Saskatoon.
If you would like to learn more about AUDEAMUS, visit their website at: https://www.audeamus.ca/