EDMONTONâ€”The number of service dogs trained in Alberta nearly tripled after changes to regulations saw more support for certification programs and for those looking to train their own dogs.
According to provincial government data, since January 2018 â€” after new rules developed provincial training standards in line with the international service dog community, recognized eight approved service dog providers and created more opportunity for handlers to train their own service dogs and have them certified â€” there have been almost 60 service dogs trained in Alberta.
Service dog Stirling â€” named after the late Cpl. T.J. Stirling of Calgary, who suffered from PTSD after returning from the war in Afghanistan â€” is one of 15 dogs currently being trained by Hope Heels Service Dogs to help veterans and first responders struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Since the province changed regulations in 2017, Hope Heels has doubled the number of dogs in its training program.Â Â (Supplied)
Service dogs like Molly were on hand for crisis support during a vigil at the arena in Humboldt, Sask., on April 8, commemorating the 16 people who were killed and 13 injured after a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos hockey team was struck en route to a game two days earlier.Â Â (Elizabeth Cameron / StarMetro Calgary)
Most of those dogs were trained by their owners and certified after passing the proper assessments.
Before the rule changes, only about 20 service dogs were trained each year.
Kristine Aanderson, executive director of Hope Heels Service Dogs, a volunteer organization that trains service dogs for veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said the changes to the regulations have been â€śrevolutionary.â€ť
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â€śWeâ€™ve doubled the amount of dogs that we have in training,â€ť Aanderson said in an interview with StarMetro on Sunday.
Hope Heels, which was added to the list of official service dog providers in 2017, currently has 15 dogs in various stages of training â€” including three dogs ready to graduate and be matched with first responders and veterans.
â€śService dogs help first responders and veterans with PTSD in a way that few other interventions can. Weâ€™ve had veterans and first responders who are unable to leave their homes alone that, once they are paired with a service dog, they never have to be alone again. There is always someone who is going to be there for them,â€ť Aanderson said.
â€śThey can be trained to retrieve medications, they can be trained to alert to symptoms like anxiety and then act in ways that help reduce that anxiety.â€ť
Aanderson said it takes about two years and thousands of hours to train a PTSD service dog who can recognize and react to signs of anxiety, stress or agitation in their handler.
â€śItâ€™s easy to have a dog doing something at home, but can you do it in the middle of the Calgary Stampede? Thatâ€™s the level that our dogs have to be trained to,â€ť she said.
Hope Heels has been training and providing service dogs to veterans and first responders for five years, but after being officially recognized by the province, Aanderson said the organization has gained legitimacy, allowing it to attract more donors and train more dogs.
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â€śThe amount of service dogs needed in this province to be able to help Albertans live to their optimal quality of life is staggering â€” itâ€™s in the hundreds,â€ť Aanderson said. â€śWhen good, qualified programs canâ€™t provide them, people end up either not receiving the help or treatment that they need â€” which is awful â€” or theyâ€™re left on their own to fend for themselves and they can end up in the hands of programs that are less than savoury.â€ť
But even with the increase in the number of dogs being trained, Aanderson said the need is still outpacing the ability of programs like hers to provide service dogs.
She said she has seen firsthand the â€śstaggeringâ€ť difference a service dog can make in a personâ€™s life.
One of her organizationâ€™s dogs was paired with a first responder whose crippling anxiety kept her housebound.
â€śThey could barely leave the house, and that person now flies all over Canada, does all these amazing things because of the service dog she is paired with,â€ť Aanderson said, adding she is eager to see more service dogs trained and matched with people in need.
â€śKnowing that is the difference itâ€™s going to make, it just makes all of the thousands of hours worthwhile.â€ť
Claire Theobald is an Edmonton-based reporter who covers crime and the courts. Follow her on Twitter: @clairetheobald