Service dogs help veterans with PTSD. Why won’t Ottawa?

’This is just basic discrimination,’ says one vet, angry over Ottawa’s refusal to treat service dogs for PTSD sufferers the same as for other injured former soldiers.
Retired RCAF captain Medric Cousineau, with psychiatric service dog Thai. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

“I went down into a virtual floating slaughter house,” says Medric Cousineau. I can hear the catch in his voice as the retired RCAF captain recalled the terrible night of Oct. 6, 1986, when he rescued two badly injured Americans from a fishing boat. It was a vicious North Atlantic storm. The two fisherman had been sucked through the hydraulic line hauler and almost butchered.

Cousineau—people just call him Cous—was a member of the HMCS Nipigon Helicopter Detachment, and he had volunteered to be lowered down from the helicopter onto the boat to try to rescue the men. Bucking waves threw him overboard into the freezing ocean, but somehow Cous managed to climb back on the pitching deck and evacuate the two bleeding men. He was awarded the Star of Courage for his actions. “Had Lt. Cousineau not willingly put his own life in jeopardy, both of the injured men would certainly have died,” the declaration of bravery concluded.

That event changed Medric Cousineau forever. Although the country regards him as a hero, the personal cost of his actions was devastating. “That night just never went away,” Cous says. He began to have “dissociative events” and had to stop flying because he felt he was a danger to others. He didn’t realize for years that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but soon it took over his life. “For three decades, I’ve battled panic attacks, night terrors and multiple addictions.” He contemplated suicide. At times he felt so numb that he stabbed himself with pins or drove his car at 100 miles an hour through side streets “just to feel something.” Cous is not proud of these moments but he doesn’t shy away from talking about them. “It ain’t pretty,” he says.

Cous, the man awarded the Star of Courage for rescuing others, believes he would be dead today if he wasn’t rescued as well, but not by a person. Medric Cousineau was rescued by a yellow lab named Thai.

It wasn’t just any dog. Thai is a psychiatric service dog, an animal specially trained to help people facing health challenges. As the PTSD took over Cous’s life, a friend recommended he get a psychiatric service dog but Cous was so broke, he couldn’t even afford one. Finally, the local Legion stepped in and helped him out. What happened next was remarkable. “On Aug. 6, 2012, I got my psychiatric service dog and my life changed dramatically,” Cous says. “By Christmas that year, my daughter came home to see me and she was awestruck.” Thai had totally changed him. Cous was calmer, happier. When he woke up at 4:30 a.m. in midst of a night terror—he still does to this day—Thai was there to soothe him, to remind him he was off the boat and safe. She still does. “I was injured before my daughter was born and she had never seen me like this, never met this man before and she said, ‘Whatever you are doing, keep doing it.’ ” He did even more.

Cousineau became an activist, starting a group called Paws Fur Thought, a Nova Scotia based organization that helps vets get psychiatric service dogs. To raise money and awareness for his cause, Cous walked from Nova Scotia to the War Museum in Ottawa, over 1,000 km, a journey he wrote about in his book Further Than Yesterday. He began to give motivational speeches and turned his life around, helping more than 70 other veterans get psychiatric service dogs.

This should be the end of the story, a Christmas tale of redemption and help, how one vet had his life saved by a dog and went on to help others. But it’s not that kind of story. Instead, it’s the story of Medric Cousineau’s next big battle, one pitting veterans against the government, a battle that is still going today.

If a veteran suffers from epilepsy, blindness, deafness or myriad other conditions, the government helps them get a service dog through a tax credit. It is quite simple: a veteran makes a claim for the care and maintenance of a service dog under the disability tax credit certificate, which is part of the Canada Revenue Agency Act and in most cases they get it. But here is the catch: a veteran with PTSD is not eligible.

Veterans Affairs Canada does not recognize psychiatric service dogs as a legitimate treatment for PTSD. “This is just basic discrimination,” Cous says about the situation.

For the past few years, Cous has asked various Ministers of Veterans affairs to work with the finance department to change the tax credit and let vets with PTSD get support for their service dog but so far nothing has changed. I contacted the government to find out why they won’t include vets in what looks like a simple change to the tax code to help out these vets. “The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a pilot study to evaluate whether the use of psychiatric service dogs is a safe and effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder,” the department told me. “VAC has also sought to establish a set of national standards to provide assurance that the psychiatric service dogs being provided to veterans are properly trained and meet standardized behaviour requirements.” So, when will all this get done? “Both of these projects are expected to be complete by December 2017. At [that] time, we will review the findings and determine next steps.”

I passed on these comments to Cous and he was livid. “This is a DBM letter, a Don’t Bother Me letter,” he said. “They completely miss the mark. Psychiatric service dog handlers are being held to different standards than other service dog handlers as embedded in the Income Tax Act. This is a clear case of discrimination on the basis of disability. They see this as a “service dog efficacy and standards” issue when it is a human rights issue.”

I went back to the department to find out when they might make a change but they punted the issue to the Finance department, who would have to make the change. So I asked them if Finance Minister Bill Morneau might make the change right now, in time for Christmas. No dice. “Finance Canada looks forward to receiving the results of these projects,” they wrote to me, referring to the Veterans Affairs study. “They will provide important evidence as the department considers whether the list of eligible expenses should be expanded to include psychiatric service dogs. The list of expenses eligible for the Medical Expense Tax Credit is reviewed on an ongoing basis in light of medically related developments and new technologies.”

Let me translate this. Nothing is happening right now. That’s not going make people happy. The former NDP MP and Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer has met with Medric and doesn’t buy the government’s explanation. “No other service dog for other groups had to go through this process,” Stoffer says, dismissing the government’s position as a delay tactic, but one with deadly consequences. “They wish to wait until December 2017 then maybe put it in a budget for spring 2018, which means that the credit will be done in the late fall of 2018, almost two years from now,” Stoffer says. “This year alone 19 service personnel have taken their own lives. These service dogs for people suffering mental injuries save lives and give back worth to the individual. Nothing is stopping the government from doing this today.”

Why they won’t is hard to understand. This is not an issue of money, as the tax credit would cost the government next to nothing. It’s not an issue of politics, because this government repeats that it listens to the needs of veterans, so you would think this would be a no-brainer. And it doesn’t appear to be an issue of medical study, because, as Stoffer says, no other group has ever been held to the same standards. The Veterans Affairs office told me they are only aware of 36 veterans who use service dogs, but Cous himself has placed 72 through his own organization, information he says he’s passed on to VAC. What it starts to look like is tone deafness.

This week the Royal Canadian Legion sent letters to both the ministers of finance and veterans affairs asking for a change to the tax code on this. Cous is thinking of filing a human rights complaint.

“This could have been a great Christmas story,” Cous says. “It could have been the department helping out veterans with service dogs. Renew their faith in the government. Instead, I’m likely going to file a human rights complaint about discrimination. I would have died for this country. I’ve demonstrated that, and this is what we get. I’m furious.”