RCMP veteran Patti Urquhart and Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs co-founder Mike Annan at the merger announcement on Thursday, Aug. 16. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Lower Mainland graduation marks expansion of PTSD service dog program

Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs and B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs Society merging to help more veterans

It was Patti Urquhart’s graduation, but she didn’t have a cap on her head. Instead, she had a leash in her hand.

The Langley resident and former RCMP member was standing on the back porch at the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs Society in Delta on Thursday (Aug. 16), celebrating her graduation from Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs’ year-long service dog program.

Since 2005, Urquhart had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can develop after exposure to traumatic situations and is especially common in military and RCMP veterans. Symptoms of PTSD vary, but can include flashbacks of the traumatic event, feeling constantly on edge, difficulty concentrating, becoming reclusive and developing insomnia.

RELATED: Learn about your illness, have power over it: Cloverdale resident Alice Fox on living with PTSD

After 12 years with PTSD, Urquhart said, she “just wasn’t functioning at all.” Her doctor and psychologist suggested a dog could help her deal with her condition. She turned to the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs program, which helps veterans and RCMP members suffering with PTSD become part of a service dog team in order to help them reconnect with themselves and their community.

Over the course of the past year, Urquhart had worked with a yellow lab named Tiaa to become a B.C. Certified Stress Injury Service and Support Dog team.

“She just, right from the very beginning, had that total understanding in my eyes,” Urquhart said, Tiaa sitting quietly by her side. “I can have a question in my mind, and I just stare at her and I just process it because we’re together. And it’s like the approval that I need, you know?

“Like, Tiaa,” she added, looking down at Tiaa. “Should we go for a walk?”

Tiaa looked up, and touched her nose to the leash in Urquhart’s hand.

“There’s my leash,” Urquhart said. “Tiaa, can you sit? That’s a good girl. You lay down? Tiaa? Down. That’s my good girl.”

At each request, Tiaa sat or lay down on the porch, quiet and calm (and only glancing occasionally at the graduation cake in Urquhart’s hand).

Having that approval and unconditional love from Tiaa has been key for Urquhart in feeling like she could become a part of her community again.

“It built my confidence,” she said. “A year ago, there was no way I would be out here talking to people.”

But having a dog is also a grounding experience for people who might be feeling trapped in their past traumatic experiences.

“It’s that fur therapy. It’s getting into the here-and-now,” she explained. “You have to get into the here-and-now because they’re touching you, they’re kissing you. It forces you back into the reality of ‘this is life, and we’re together and I’m not going to leave you.’”

Urquhart is one of more than 25 veterans that have graduated from the Vancouver Island charity’s program. But she is the first one to graduate in the Lower Mainland, and her convocation ceremony marked the start of the official amalgamation of Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs and the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs Society.

“We like to say we’ve been a partner school right from the beginning,” Compassion Dogs’ executive director Mike Annan said at the ceremony. “The amalgamation just completes our two schools [coming] together, as a celebration of what we’ve accomplished.”

The merger, which will see the two groups officially become one agency, will help the Vancouver Island charity bring the program to veterans in the Lower Mainland.

“We’ve proved our model on Vancouver Island,” Annan said. “Now we’re here with our first graduate [in the Lower Mainland], and an intake of three clients starting training at the end of this month.”

Having a support network of locals is important for the people in the service dog program, explained Stephane Marcotte. The Victoria resident graduated with his yellow lab Sarje 14 months ago, and has been a mentor in the program since then.

“We become a family almost,” Marcotte said. “As a veteran, we need to have a belonging because we don’t do what we used to do in the military or the RCMP.

“We used to have a big group,” he continued. “Now we’re not there no more. So it’s kind of a way to to bring us together.”

Urquhart agreed.

“We are all in the same place,” she said. “To be able to get together with so many other people that can confirm your same thoughts and your fears and the triggers, without even exchanging stories of where we came from, whether we were overseas or not. It just doesn’t matter.”

Now that she has graduated, Urquhart hopes she can become “one of the best mentors” for fellow veterans in the Lower Mainland.

“I just need to do that, to pass that along to my brothers and sisters in the military and the RCMP,” she said.

Urquhart had wanted to attend the memorial for former Mountie Krista Carle, which was taking place in Sidney that same day. Carle committed suicide on July 6 after a long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Carle had long spoken out against systematic sexual harassment in the RCMP, working with fellow veterans Janet Merlo and Catherine Galliford to create change and accountability within the police service.

RELATED: Former B.C. Mountie who fought harassment in the force dies by suicide

“I really wanted to go,” Urquhart said about Carle’s memorial, “but I knew that I needed to do this, to share with a lot more people that it could help.

“It could have, probably, helped her,” she added about the program. “Because you have something else to live for.”

For more information on the PTSD service dog program, and how to apply to be part of it, visit vicompassiondogs.ca/program/.



grace.kennedy@northdeltareporter.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

 

Tiaa, a PTSD service dog, at the BC Guide Dogs announcement on Thursday, Aug. 16. (Grace Kennedy photo)

RCMP veteran Patti Urquhart and her PTSD service dog Tiaa. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Just Posted

Rainfall warning: Up to 70 mm expected across Fraser Valley

Environment Canada issued a weather warning heading into the long weekend

No more mobile vendors on Harrison beach

The approval of an updated business licence bylaw means Nolan Irwin is without a cart

BC Ferries to pilot selling beer and wine on select routes

Drinks from select B.C. breweries and VQA wineries to be sold on Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen route

Harrison Festival releases 2019 line up

The 41st annual Harrison Festival of the Arts will be held from July 12 to 21

Fisheries Department announces conservation measures to protect chinook in B.C.

Urgent protection measures include closure of a commercial fishery involving seven endangered stock

VIDEO: Alberta man creates world’s biggest caricature

Dean Foster is trying to break the world record for a radio show contest

Man driving wrong way on Highway 17 ‘seriously’ injured after crash: Surrey RCMP

Police say the driver hit a transport truck, then another car after merging from the off-ramp onto highway

Should B.C. lower speed limits on side roads to 30 km/h?

Vancouver city councillor wants to decrease speed limits along neighbourhood side roads

Lawsuit eyed over union-only raise for B.C. community care workers

‘Low-wage redress’ leaves 17,000 employees out, employers say

Landlord of alleged Okanagan shooter recounts deadly day

Tony Friesen was working in one of the units of his Penticton building when he heard shots

Foreign national arrested in connection to thefts at YVR

A woman, 60, is being held in police custody as Richmond RCMP investigate

Police pursue pesky porker on Vancouver Island

‘This was allegedly not the pig’s first escape’

Rare ‘Snow Tower’ tree blooming in Vancouver city park

A plant rarely grown in Canada is now flowering at the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park

Westjet tries again to dismiss proposed class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination

Former flight attendant claims airline broke contractual promise to create harassment-free workplace

Most Read