Training Service Dogs for
Canadian Veterans with PTSD
Story by Alley L. Biniarz
Photography by Ryan Isley
Beamsville-based not for profit Veteran’s Elite Canines has partnered with Kingsville dog trainer and breeder Ontario K9 to help bring trained service dogs to Canadian Veterans with PTSD. This idea was inspired by the organization’s founder Cindy Weir, who herself is a Veteran diagnosed with PTSD.
Back in 2018, Cindy’s psychologist saw the need for a service dog. After being told the wait list was five to six years and they were not taking any more names, Cindy ended up going to the United States and finding Pawsitive Love Foundation in Florida. To her surprise, they gifted her the training of her dog Gracie, free of charge.
“It was a kindness I wasn’t used to,” Cindy shares. “As Veterans, we have a hard time accepting help. We’re used to doing things for other people and not people doing things for us.” Cindy says that they did this for her even though she served for Canada. “They told me a Veteran is a Veteran,” which is the motto that her organization carries forward now.
Coming back to Canada, Cindy continued to see the difficulties that Veterans faced accessing service dogs. Starting Veteran’s Elite Canines was her way of paying that kindness forward and helping other Canadian Veterans. Once the idea was in place, the next step was to find a trainer that would fit the vision. Cindy stumbled upon the Essex County dog training facility, Ontario K9 online and said she was immediately drawn to the methods they were using. After meeting the owner Ryan Isley in person, seeing his passion for the dogs in the way he was handling and training them, they decided to collaborate on this project.
“I wanted to get my business more involved with the community,” Ryan explains his agreement to train the dogs for the organization. “I know what effect dogs can have on people and I wanted to pair the Veterans with the right type of dogs.”
Ryan doesn’t just train the dogs for the Veterans but goes the extra mile to breed specific working dogs that can handle the training properly and be safe service dogs. He handles them from puppyhood for about 10-16 months before they’re ready to be paired with a Veteran. “This way all of the training is complete and there is no stress on the Veteran to need to do any of this work; the dogs help them with their stress, not the other way around.”
The way that Ontario K9 trains the dogs goes beyond the praise tactics and creates a true team relationship between owner and dog. They incorporate obstacles to add in a variety of stressors so that the dog can perform under real life stress and know how to handle the number of situations that may arise in the veterans’ day-to-day life.
The fees for the dogs’ food and training accumulates and can cost up to $40,000 per dog, which is why Cindy is grateful for Boeing Canada’s donation to Veteran’s Elite Canines and their sponsorship of two dogs and to Ryan for his own donation of a dog. Ryan currently has five dogs in the training grounds who will be ready to be paired up by October, but the need is still greater than they can financially handle. Cindy says that she is receiving messages constantly about the need for more service dogs, and that they’re always looking for more donors to help with this cause. “Veterans always seem to slide to the bottom of the food chain when it comes to help and I believe we need to do more and help save these Veterans,” she adds.
Cindy knows the difference having a service dog makes in a Veteran’s life. Personally, Cindy shares how she found it difficult to leave the house to walk around the block, let alone run errands. She explains how each Veteran handles PTSD differently but many of them are hypervigilant and are always on the lookout for something to happen. “When you’ve seen the things we’ve seen, you’re always on the defensive to protect your family and self. The dogs mitigate that and provide a barrier and a sense of safety when you need boundaries.” These dogs are also trained to sense panic attacks or nightmares and be able to interrupt them and calm their handler down.
“When you live with these mental health issues, you don’t often have the capacity to fight for yourself. A service dog gives you a whole new life.” Many people can’t see the benefits of service dogs for invisible injuries and assume that Cindy is training Gracie when they see them out for a walk. Cindy emphasizes that if you see a person with a service dog, know that this dog is working and never ask to pet them. “If you see a vest, don’t even look at the dog if you want to engage; talk to the person who is using the dog. Treat them like a normal person, they probably miss that.”
Cindy says it’s situations like this that creates the need for education and public awareness about service dogs for PTSD and other non-visible mental health needs. They are making an incredible difference, even if you can’t see it. “My life has changed so dramatically with Gracie, and I’m grateful every day for the gift of training that was given to me because I am a Veteran. I know for a fact that I would not be here today if it wasn’t for Gracie and the kindness of a stranger at the Pawsitive Love Foundation.”
She adds that once Veterans get their lives back, they inevitably pay it forward. “They receive their service dog with no strings attached. The Service Dog becomes part of the healing journey and Post Traumatic Growth, their inner strength builds from those beginning steps and then that same Veteran wants to or feels the need to pay it forward somehow.” She says that this can be seen through the Veteran being able to reconnect with their families again, volunteer at the food bank, serve on the boards in their local community or coach their neighborhood’s little league. “Some of the first big achievements are when they go to a doctor’s appointment by themselves, or go grocery shopping, or just grab coffee with a friend, all things that we take for granted.”
She says that the ability to serve again is a blessing in itself because it’s in their DNA; serving is something that Cindy feels she was born and meant to do, and she feels that she’s been given the gift to be able to serve her country again through this organization.
Ontario K9 and its team are doing an amazing job raising and training the dogs to become an invaluable tool in the healing journey of their Veteran Handler. Once paired together they will become an inseparable team that will be ready to take on the world, and you can be a part of this wonderful story. As mentioned, Veteran’s Elite Canines has a sponsorship with Boeing Canada and two Veterans have already been vetted and screened and are aware that they will be the recipients of the two sponsored dogs. However, with five dogs training now, they need sponsors for the other three. If you or someone you know is able to lend a hand in sponsoring a dog, you can visit www.veteranselitecanines.ca to find out how.