PTSD program trains service dogs alongside first responders who need them

A new program called The Valhalla Project is working to pair service dogs up with first responders and veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Tammie Sutherland finds out more and meets some of the pups involved.

By Tammie Sutherland

Two emergency workers living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are introducing dogs as part of a new program to help fellow first responders deal with the illness.

The Valhalla Project Niagara is a treatment course that provides mental health support and education for emergency workers and military veterans. It will also partner a service dog in-training with some participants, so they can train together to become an official service dog team.

“Essentially what we look to do is eliminate the fostering process that’s traditionally associated with service dogs, i.e. they live with a stranger for the first two years of their life,” says Graham Bettes, the founder of the Valhalla Niagara.

Bettes, a 29-year Peel Regional Police officer and a military veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012.

“One of the culminating incidents was where several children got struck by lightning and one of them unfortunately passed away,” Bettes says.

Bettes started thinking about putting together the program after seeing the benefits of having his service dog, Maverick.

“The first night I had him, he did nightmare mitigation immediately … he also gives me the ability to go out in situations where I might quickly lose confidence in myself, like crowd conditions, line-ups, shopping malls, those sort of things.”

One of the goals of the Valhalla Project is to reduce the typically lengthy wait list for a service dog that PTSD sufferers can face when in need.

Another unique aspect of the program is that everyone involved behind-the-scenes also lives with PTSD. That includes Shawn Bennett, one of the program directors and a 29-year veteran of the St. Catharines Fire Service. Bennett has lived with the illness since the early 1990s.

“I guess the best way to put it is that I had the privilege of holding more than 18 of our kids in their last moments and I can’t hold anymore. I can’t do it anymore. Now I just learn about my injury and help others.”

Bennett also served in the military and says the program looks to reduced the suicide crisis among first responders and veterans around the country.

Since September, at least three police officers in Ontario have died by suicide, including officers with Toronto Police, the OPP and an Ottawa Police detective who shot himself inside police headquarters.

“We’ve lost a lot of people over the last couple months to suicide, on all levels…and we don’t need that anymore,” Bennett says.

The Valhalla Project Niagara has a vision of helping 120 participants each year, with 80 of those first responders being paired with a service dog-in-training. Their goal is to make this free-of-charge for anyone who takes the program, relying on donations and fundraising to get the project running by March 2020.

The program will include a five-day residential program that teaches participants the basics of PTSD and coping mechanisms to help deal with the illness.

Bennett’s wife, Melodi Doiron, has been a professional dog trainer for more than 25 years and will be in charge of Valhalla’s service dog program. She also lives with PTSD from her time as a personal support worker.

“We have the benefit of this [being] our life too and giving that back to the community. First-hand knowledge. It’s not book knowledge, it’s first-hand knowledge,” Doiron says.

According to a recent report conducted by Ontario’s chief coroner, nine police officers in the province died by suicide in 2018. That’s nearly double the amount of police suicides recorded by the coroner in five of the previous years. The review, released in October, recommends the province’s coroners begin tracking first responder suicides.

For more information on Valhalla Project Niagara, click here.

If you or someone you know is in distress, contact Crisis Services Canada online, via phone at 1-833-456-4566, or texting 45645.

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