It was Patti Urquhart’s graduation, but she didn’t have a cap on her head. Instead, she had a leash in her hand.
The Langley resident and former RCMP member was standing on the back porch at the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs Society in Delta on Thursday (Aug. 16), celebrating her graduation from Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs’ year-long service dog program.
Since 2005, Urquhart had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can develop after exposure to traumatic situations and is especially common in military and RCMP veterans. Symptoms of PTSD vary, but can include flashbacks of the traumatic event, feeling constantly on edge, difficulty concentrating, becoming reclusive and developing insomnia.
After 12 years with PTSD, Urquhart said, she “just wasn’t functioning at all.” Her doctor and psychologist suggested a dog could help her deal with her condition. She turned to the Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs program, which helps veterans and RCMP members suffering with PTSD become part of a service dog team in order to help them reconnect with themselves and their community.
Over the course of the past year, Urquhart had worked with a yellow lab named Tiaa to become a B.C. Certified Stress Injury Service and Support Dog team.
“She just, right from the very beginning, had that total understanding in my eyes,” Urquhart said, Tiaa sitting quietly by her side. “I can have a question in my mind, and I just stare at her and I just process it because we’re together. And it’s like the approval that I need, you know?
“Like, Tiaa,” she added, looking down at Tiaa. “Should we go for a walk?”
Tiaa looked up, and touched her nose to the leash in Urquhart’s hand.
“There’s my leash,” Urquhart said. “Tiaa, can you sit? That’s a good girl. You lay down? Tiaa? Down. That’s my good girl.”
At each request, Tiaa sat or lay down on the porch, quiet and calm (and only glancing occasionally at the graduation cake in Urquhart’s hand).
Having that approval and unconditional love from Tiaa has been key for Urquhart in feeling like she could become a part of her community again.
“It built my confidence,” she said. “A year ago, there was no way I would be out here talking to people.”
But having a dog is also a grounding experience for people who might be feeling trapped in their past traumatic experiences.
“It’s that fur therapy. It’s getting into the here-and-now,” she explained. “You have to get into the here-and-now because they’re touching you, they’re kissing you. It forces you back into the reality of ‘this is life, and we’re together and I’m not going to leave you.’”
Urquhart is one of more than 25 veterans that have graduated from the Vancouver Island charity’s program. But she is the first one to graduate in the Lower Mainland, and her convocation ceremony marked the start of the official amalgamation of Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs and the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs Society.
“We like to say we’ve been a partner school right from the beginning,” Compassion Dogs’ executive director Mike Annan said at the ceremony. “The amalgamation just completes our two schools [coming] together, as a celebration of what we’ve accomplished.”
The merger, which will see the two groups officially become one agency, will help the Vancouver Island charity bring the program to veterans in the Lower Mainland.
“We’ve proved our model on Vancouver Island,” Annan said. “Now we’re here with our first graduate [in the Lower Mainland], and an intake of three clients starting training at the end of this month.”
Having a support network of locals is important for the people in the service dog program, explained Stephane Marcotte. The Victoria resident graduated with his yellow lab Sarje 14 months ago, and has been a mentor in the program since then.
“We become a family almost,” Marcotte said. “As a veteran, we need to have a belonging because we don’t do what we used to do in the military or the RCMP.
“We used to have a big group,” he continued. “Now we’re not there no more. So it’s kind of a way to to bring us together.”
“We are all in the same place,” she said. “To be able to get together with so many other people that can confirm your same thoughts and your fears and the triggers, without even exchanging stories of where we came from, whether we were overseas or not. It just doesn’t matter.”
Now that she has graduated, Urquhart hopes she can become “one of the best mentors” for fellow veterans in the Lower Mainland.
“I just need to do that, to pass that along to my brothers and sisters in the military and the RCMP,” she said.
Urquhart had wanted to attend the memorial for former Mountie Krista Carle, which was taking place in Sidney that same day. Carle committed suicide on July 6 after a long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Carle had long spoken out against systematic sexual harassment in the RCMP, working with fellow veterans Janet Merlo and Catherine Galliford to create change and accountability within the police service.
“I really wanted to go,” Urquhart said about Carle’s memorial, “but I knew that I needed to do this, to share with a lot more people that it could help.
“It could have, probably, helped her,” she added about the program. “Because you have something else to live for.”
For more information on the PTSD service dog program, and how to apply to be part of it, visit vicompassiondogs.ca/program/.