Mark Vandersteen’s battlefield injury isn’t one that can be fixed with a bandage, tourniquet or a surgeon’s scalpel, but it can be helped with the love of a dog.
Vandersteen, who served nine years in the Canadian Armed Forces, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and tinnitus.
On Wednesday, he joined a handful of other veterans with PTSD who walked their therapy dogs on a training session around vintage aircraft in the large space inside the Royal Aviation Museum.
“It went really well,” Vandersteen said shortly after the session ended, accompanied by his therapy animal Shadow, an Australian cattle dog.
“My daughter needs socializing — I live alone,” Vandersteen said. “It was good, and there was even a group of school children there. I think they liked to see the dogs there.
To an outsider, the procession would have looked like just a group of dog owners walking their pets inside the museum, but K9RR Service Dog Academy founder Kelly Russell said it was really part of the process. of veterans therapy, each working to ensure their dog helps them while surrounded by other animals, people, and other unfamiliar sights and sounds.
“The shape of the hanger makes the sound resonate differently in the dog’s ears, which is fantastic for his nerves and his ability to focus on his handlers,” Russell said.
“Furthermore, large planes create perfectly different shapes and figures used as distractions.”
Russell knows well the value of a therapy dog to a former soldier or police officer.
She spent 32 years with the Canadian Forces and, prior to that, three years with the Army Reserve at CFB Borden in Ontario. Russell spent a dozen years in the military before joining the Air Force.
In a 2017 Free press story about PTSD, she said her struggles grew, cumulatively, from her military experiences.
“You get really good at turning your emotions off, but then you end up having PTSD and your emotions all come back at once and you don’t know how to turn them off anymore,” she said at the time.
The condition identified as post-traumatic stress disorder in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association was previously known by several different names: soldier’s heart, shell shock, combat fatigue, and post-Vietnam syndrome.
Russell said Spot, the Australian Shepherd therapy partner she had in 2015, has helped her immensely, knowing when she needs touch to distract her from whatever she might be feeling.
Brent Phillips, the museum’s vice president of marketing, communications and strategic relations, said it was uplifting to see veterans working with their dogs.
“It’s a different setting for them,” Phillips said. “The dogs were on high alert. When the sound of a plane passing over the building was heard, their ears all perked up. I think it was a great training exercise for them.
Vandersteen, who is president of the Veterans Alliance of Canada, an organization that helps veterans get prescriptions for medical cannabis, said it was also great for the group to have had another training session. earlier in the week near Winnipeg Richardson Airport, where they and the dogs walked through security and to the gate where they would board a plane.
“I have a lot of anxiety,” he said. “That’s why it was great to go to the airport, (that they) check us in and let us go through security without a boarding pass. It will help me when I get on a plane with Shadow.
Vandersteen was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for nine years; he received a voluntary release in 1997.
While on duty, he spent weeks at the firing range, which resulted in his tinnitus. Then, in 1995, he took part in a peacekeeping mission with the United Nations in the Golan Heights, between Israel and Syria.
Symptoms of PTSD appeared years after he left the Forces.
Vandersteen said he’s had help over the years, but Shadow has provided the most effective therapy. It took a while for this game to happen two years ago.
He said the name of the breed made it clear that the dogs instinct and activity level – herding cattle – was not really a quality that would seem suited to helping someone with trauma.
Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes, but he chose an Australian Cattle Dog because he wanted a working dog breed for his size, intelligence and loyalty.
It didn’t take him long to recognize the benefits of partnering with his furry therapist.
“The impact is truly priceless,” he said. “I have a lot of anxiety…and I have major depressive disorder with debilitating tinnitus, which is causing my depression.
“There are days when I don’t care about myself, but I care about her. She is an active dog and she always wants to do something. She keeps me going.
“I don’t know if I would be here without Shadow.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the Winnipeg Free Press’ most versatile reporters. Whether covering City Hall, the Courthouse or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws – who, what, when, where and why – but to do it. in an interesting and accessible way for readers. .