(PHOTO: Shawna Church Roy with her second service dog, Loki.)
SHAWNA CHURCH ROY WAS WALKING BACK FROM SOME ERRANDS WHEN SHE SAW IT: flames shooting out the roof of her family’s house.
She dropped her bags and ran up to the driveway. That’s when her biggest fear was confirmed – her kids were still inside, screaming for help. The doors were locked and the windows too hot to touch. As the tower of smoke rose into the air and the screams became louder, Roy realized she was completely powerless to save them.
Then she woke up screaming. Another night terror, the same she’s had for years.
Nightmares are just one of the ways Roy’s post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself. Roy traces it back to a sexual assault she suffered while in the military, and the harassment she received after reporting it.
It’s been nearly three years since she got her first support dog, a Shiloh Shepherd named Bauer. It was a move she says saved her life.
“It was so bad I attempted to take my life several times,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Crysler, Ontario, southeast of Ottawa. “Getting Bauer was the best thing that ever happened since getting diagnosed. Before I got Bauer… All I did was stay home and cry all the time.”
INCREASINGLY, VETERANS WITH PTSD ARE TURNING TO SUPPORT DOGS as a way to manage their symptoms. Roy says it’s helped in ways people and medicine cannot.
“I start crying and all of a sudden I’ve got a dog on my lap… I count on my dog for so much.” Because of the companionship, she no longer feels unsafe in public and can freely leave the house.
Despite their abilities, support dogs aren’t easily accessible. There is no government program for veterans (or anyone else) to obtain a trained dog, so sufferers either have to pay out-of-pocket or get help through a charity.
“Everything is done through fundraisers.” Says Roy.
Fundraisers like the Wounded Warriors’ motorcycle Ride for Disabled Vets, held annually in Stittsville. Since starting three years ago it has raised tens of thousands of dollars, some of which goes to an organization specializing in PTSD dogs called Paws Fur Thought.
In 2013, Paws founder Medric Cousineau walked more than 1,400 kilometres from Nova Scotia to Ottawa to raise awareness and money for his cause. When he passed through the area, the Stittsville Legion raised over $1,000. Food truck Wiches Cauldron followed up by donating all their tips for that day.
“I was quite blown away,” said Stittsville Legion member Christine Steadman in a July interview. Steadman and her family hosted Cousineau while he was in town.
Steadman and her husband Bob organized another bike rally in July of 2014, marshalled by double-amputee veteran Jody Mitic. It raised $13,000 for Paws. Present at the rally were Stittsville Silver Cross parents Claire and Richard Leger. Their son Sgt. Marc Leger died in a friendly fire incident in 2002, one of the first Canadian deaths in the Afghanistan War.
It was at a second rally in fall 2014 the Legers were asked to name an actual service dog. They requested it be a black dog and named it Kitt after the artificially intelligent car from the 1980s TV show Knight Rider – a favourite of Marc’s. Kitt the dog remains in the service of a veteran to this day.
“STITTSVILLE HAS RAISED A LOT OF MONEY, IN MANY, MANY DIFFERENT WAYS,” said Steadman.
She doesn’t have any upcoming fundraisers planned – saying she’s feeling burnt out – but the annual Stittsville Ride for Disabled Vets is scheduled as always for May of next year and aims to have over 400 participants.
As for Roy, she’s on her second support dog after Bauer passed away. Loki, her new dog, is 17-months-old and also a Shiloh Shepherd. Loki is still in training and learning quickly.
Roy hopes the government will lend more support in the future to providing veterans with service dogs. Although there isn’t much scientific study proving it, she says one only needs to look at her to know what it means.
“It gives the veteran a battle buddy.”
LISTEN: An audio interview with Shawna Roy
With files from Glen Gower