First responder fights PTSD with service dog

Tania McClelland’s long journey to better health led her to Jack and courses with a local dog club.

Sharon Sundher

It’s been a long and tough battle for former first responder Tania McClelland, who has struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Yet, she has made significant improvements, much of it thanks to her time with the North Saanich Dog Obedience Training Club (NOSA).

McClelland’s PTSD was triggered in 2011 when Victoria Police Constable Lane Douglas-Hunt was stabbed during a call she was sent to by McClelland. Douglas-Hunt survived, but McClelland had heard everything that had happened during the call and couldn’t do anything. The incident left her with PTSD.

Fast forward to 2014. McClelland began a program with the local dog obedience club with her now-certified service dog, Jack. The classes helped her overcome many challenges and they gave her the confidence and support she needed.

“I had a lot of agencies close their doors on me,” she recalled. “I have a list of agencies that I’ve wrote to get a dog, or  to get training or to go into their training program and the doors just kept closing and closing and closing and I hate to say it (but) a lot of it was because I was a first responder and not a Canadian war veteran.”

According to The Tema Conter Memorial Trust, a Canadian help centre for men and women in the correctional, emergency and military services, 40 first responders and 17 military members died by suicide in Canada last year. This year so far, 38 first responders and nine military members have died by suicide.

When she stopped working in 2011, McClelland’s daughter left her dog with her. She was in a very dark place and needed the companionship.

She later saw something on television about Puppies Behind Bars and read the book Until Tuesday, written by a soldier who did two tours in Iraq and ended up with one of the dogs from Puppies Behind Bars.

This began McClelland’s research for a dog of her own.

With no support from WorkSafe B.C, McClelland said she just couldn’t afford to get a dog with certification and training.

Her daughters came through for her, replacing her pet dog with a new one — Jack — who came to her with issues of his own.

“There were points where we weren’t leaving the house for weeks upon weeks and I started noticing behavioural issues with him.”

It was at a Brentwood Bay market booth where she first discovered NOSA. Entering their classes would soon change her life.

McClelland began first with a beginner class before moving onto advanced classes.

“Some nights were really, really difficult to get out of the house,” she said.

It was when she began working with her service dog that friends began to see a vast improvement in her overall mood.

The president of NOSA, Marilyn Clayton, says the group does not train service dogs, but rather, they train pet dogs to be good members of society and to work with the owners.

“The program that’s worked the most magic for Tania has been the Canine Good Neighbour (CGN) program,” she said.

Trainer Sharon Sundher said CGN is different from obedience classes.

“With obedience, we ask the dogs to be very particular, to sit straight and to heel properly,” she said. “But Canine Good Neighbour is much more relaxed, you can interact with your dog at any time. We don’t worry if they’re sitting straight.”

McClelland’s dog Jack was a different challenge for Sundher. Jack needed his personal space and others weren’t allowed to touch him.

“People do not touch a working dog, so it actually helped our class to have (Tania) in there because this was another challenge for all the owners and the dogs to give Jack space and it worked really well.”

McClelland took a few classes with NOSA but it was a very long process to get there with Jack.

“You could see the first time she walked through our door that Jack was bonded to her. ‘Hey, I’m watching out don’t you worry mom. I’ll look after everything.’

“That bond was very, very tight right from the first time we saw her,” said Clayton.

McClelland said she has experienced a lot of stigma associated with PTSD. She said it would be different if it were a physical injury.

“After these years, it’s water off your back. And then when Jack got his vest it was even harder because it was like a walking billboard.”

Jack now goes everywhere she goes.

“And he wakes me up at night if I have a nightmare. I was training him to turn on the light if I had a nightmare but the wall was getting kind of scratched up,” she said with a laugh.

Jack isn’t allowed up on the furniture unless he’s waking McClelland up from a nightmare or trying to warn her about something.

“It’s a working dog, it’s not a pet. He has a job to do.”

On August 11, McClelland and Jack completed the service dog test in Victoria, finally certifying him.

“It’s been five years of fighting to get a certified service dog.”

McClelland is currently working to make changes with WorkSafe BC regarding First Responders with PTSD to get the help they need and not have to go through a similarly  long process.

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