Former soldier Terry Haakman

Service dog helping vet with PTSD

Things just didn’t seem right for Terry Haakman after he returned to Canada in 2010 after four years in Bosnia-Herzegovina, working as a civilian contractor for NATO.

Things just didn’t seem right for Terry Haakman after he returned to Canada in 2010 after four years in Bosnia-Herzegovina, working as a civilian contractor for NATO.

Before that, Haakman, 38, had also seen army duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as a member of the Canadian Forces peace support mission.

He served nine years in the military, from 1996 to 2005.

In the army — he joined when he as 19 — he was a signals operator, and then with NATO, specializing in digital communications.

He won’t talk about the work he did because he said it is confidential.

On his return, he found a job in Red Deer — he now works in Information Technology. Haakman lives in the city with his wife who he met in Bosnia.

He was struggling to reintegrate, trying to find the right fit, trying to get used to ordinary life back in Canada.

At first, Haakman, who is originally from Ottawa, thought it was just the transition, but then he found himself being really cold toward others.

“I was sort of a jerk. I had low tolerance of people, a short temper, and I wasn’t like that before.”

Eventually, about two years ago, his symptoms would lead to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — a now not unfamiliar health issue amongst soldiers who have seen warfare. At one time, the tolling effects of war was known as shell shock.

Haakman has been on disability now since April through his employer. But he is also getting coverage for psychological counselling and his medications from Veterans Affairs Canada. The federal assistance is for two years and he is about halfway through it.

Still struggling with issues in his therapy, he does not want to share the actual events that led to his PTSD.

Through his trials, especially his anxiety and “hypervigilance”, Haakman has found help that involves neither medication or therapy — in the form of Koda the service dog.

After he was diagnosed, he attended a service dog demonstration event in Canmore for UN and NATO veterans that showed the benefits the dogs have on people suffering PTSD and other mental illnesses.

Haakman then went in search of a young dog that could be trained through Courageous Companions, in partnership with the Canadian Legacy Project, which provides service dogs to veterans of the Canadian Forces who suffer from PTSD.

All the costs, including training and travel, are covered by the program that relies on donations.

Haakman already had two pet dogs at home but they were older, and because the investment to train a service dog can be between $5,000 and $15,000, it’s better to start with a young dog.

Haakman found Koda, a German shepherd cross, at the Red Deer SPCA. She was eight months old. They went to training together in Winnipeg and B.C. just over a year ago.

Some of the PTSD symptoms he has include high levels of anxiety, depression and nightmares. And there’s the hypervigilance.

“I’m always looking over my shoulder. I’m always scanning for threats or things like that and. With the dog, she can do that for me and I can just look at the dog and she’ll indicate if there’s something that needs my attention, so I don’t have to keep scanning all over the place,” said Haakman.

“When my anxiety level gets high … she’ll jump on me to distract me from whatever it is that’s making me anxious. She looks in my face and kind of says, ‘Pet me, pet me I’m soft.’ … She wakes me up from nightmares by jumping on me or putting her paws on me to wake me up.

“She pulls me out of stressful situations as well. If I’m at an event where I’m extremely uncomfortable she’ll pull me toward a door.”

Haakman said having the dog has helped him cut back on some of his medications.

Koda has had a lot of training to make sure she knows how to behave herself in public. And she’s had symptom detection training, “which is different for everybody because everybody has different symptoms.”

“Now she’s with me everywhere I go.”

“When she has her vest on she knows it’s time to work.” Koda wears a special vest provided by Courageous Companions.

In Red Deer, Haakman has found bringing the service dog with him has been mainly well received.

He points to a recent study that indicated Calgary was the most intolerant city in Canada when it comes to service dogs. The study involved owners trying to take the dogs to a variety of places, and often they were turned away from taxis, restaurants and other businesses.

Red Deer wasn’t part of the study but Haakman believes this city would have rated very well.

“I found it odd you can rate Calgary as one of the worst cities in Canada for service dogs but only an hour north, in my opinion, you’re getting one of the best.”

Haakman has encountered only a few problems, one being at a convenience store but when he explained Koda was a medical service dog, they were OK with it.

“Everywhere else is great. We go to Walmart, Home Depot, the grocery stores, anywhere I go, she comes with me in the malls.”

He did have one other problem when a doctor did not want to see him with Koda.

Haakman said the doctor was afraid of the dog and so he had to wait a few weeks before he got in to see a different doctor.

“People in Red Deer are generally accepting. One of my challenges is actually getting out of the house on a regular basis.”

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