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Dogs helping Victoria veterans cope with PTSD

Stephane Marcotte and his dog Sarge. The duo will be graduating from the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs program, which pairs dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in the next few months.  - Kendra Wong/Victoria News
Stephane Marcotte and his dog Sarge. The duo will be graduating from the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs program, which pairs dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in the next few months.
— image credit: Kendra Wong/Victoria News

Stephane Marcotte has a connection with his dog Sarge that he finds difficult to describe, but it’s one he knows has changed his life forever.

When Marcotte is agitated or angry, the two-and-a-half-year-old yellow lab will sense his emotions and gently nudge him to pet and distract him. If Marcotte is happy, Sarge will wag his tail, turning Marcotte into a new person.

“When your blood gets boiling and you’re emotional, it creates a chemical reaction and dogs can sense that,” said the 49-year-old Greater Victoria resident. “Our relationship is like friendship, companionship, trust. It’s very deep.”

But Sarge is no ordinary dog.

Sarge, who was previously trained to be a guide dog, is now helping Marcotte deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as part of Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, a non-profit organization that matches rescue dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD.

Marcotte served in the Canadian navy as a marine engineer responsible for maintaining a submarine’s engine and mechanics for 18 years. However, after leaving the navy following nearly three decades of service, he started having nightmares, flash backs, anxiety and panic attacks of his time in war. He didn’t want to socialize with anyone and rarely left the house, during what he described as an “intense” period in his life.

After being diagnosed with the disorder three years after, he tried to get help through various programs, such as Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday, which helps spouses deal with the disorder, as well as the Can Praxis program in Alberta, where couples learn to communicate with the help of a horse. However, none of the programs have had the same effect on Marcotte that Sarge has.

Marcotte was matched with Sarge roughly a year ago through the program. After interacting with two other dogs to try and find the right match, it was Sarge who walked right up to Marcotte and sat on his feet.

Making the two-hour drive, twice a week to the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs school in Qualicum Beach, Marcotte teaches Sarge basic obedience such as sit, stay, leave it and recall, establishing trust between each other. Now, the duo are inseparable. Anywhere Marcotte goes Sarge does as well.

But it’s the things Marcotte doesn’t teach Sarge that have the biggest impact.

When Marcotte has nightmares as a result of his PTSD, Sarge will climb into bed and wake him up. If he’s agitated, Sarge will push him in another direction or whine to get him away from certain situations. Sarge can act as a barrier for Marcotte, walking in front of or behind him if he feels people are too close to him as well.

Sarge has also encouraged Marcotte to get out of the house to go for walks and socialize with other people again.

“He’s so incredible. He’s so good and I feel great with him. I can do things, I can go out in public,” Marcotte said, adding people often ask to pet Sarge, which then leads into a conversation.

“For me, socializing is going out for a walk and talking to people and for me that’s a big step. To go out and talk to people and enjoy the exercise that we do together is physically and mentally healthy.”

Sarge has had such a positive affect on Marcotte that he no longer needs medication to cope with his disorder.

It’s a change Barb Ashmead still hasn’t gotten used to seeing since she co-founded Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs in 2013. When veterans first enter the program, they’re often angry and frustrated. However, over the 52-week comprehensive program, they become more compassionate.

“You see them start training the dog and they soften up and you see them become compassionate. They see the change the dog is making in them. They’re not so angry all the time . . . it’s phenomenal,” said Ashmead, who used to raise puppies to become B.C. guide dogs and was a dog trainer for 15 years prior to that.

Over the past four years, the program has helped 29 veterans struggling with PTSD, including Langford resident Allan Kobayashi, who recently graduated from the program with his dog, Chico. Kobayashi said the two-year-old chocolate lab has had a profound affect on him in the one year since they were matched. Chico, said Kobayashi, is what keeps him connected and grounded.

If Kobayashi is activated or triggered, Chico will paw, lick or bark at him, or rest his head on Kobayashi’s wrist.

“I’ve never really truly connected to an animal such as Chico. Chico provides that stability when I need it,” Kobayashi said. “He keeps me grounded.”

Marcotte and Sarge will be graduating from the program in a few months, but in the long-run Marcotte knows he’ll be able to continue living a normal life with Sarge by his side.

For more information about Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs visit vicompassiondogs.ca.

 

 

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