By Brandon Young
Understanding, patience and reliability—just a few of the qualities we've come to associate with our most prized of friendships. Knowing we're heard and that a shoulder to lean on is never far during difficult and lonely times can be one of the most secure feelings there is. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that canines, man's best friend, just might be one of the best supports there is.
In 2009, police officer, Kevin Johnson, became trapped while rescuing several people from a wildfire. While the fire grew in intensity, his hope of survival diminished.
"I resolved to the fact that it was the end," he says, recounting the hopeless moments in which ash and wind created an endless storm of fire surrounding him.
Fortunately, Johnson was rescued and made it out alive, but not unscathed. Suffering both physical and psychological injuries, including nerve and lung damage, and post-traumatic stress disorder, he wasn't out of the woods just yet.
In the days following his life-altering event, Johnson experienced severe depression and anxiety, bringing him to depths of despair he never thought possible.
"No one could ever convince me that I would go down the road to being in the very dark place I was at," says Johnson. "A place where suicide was very much a reality."
Having already had a support system, which included a physician and a psychologist, Johnson received help promptly. In addition to therapy and medications, he took part in a pilot program offering to pair first responders with service dogs funded by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia.
It was through that pilot program that he met his assistant dog Maggie, on a day he remembers fondly as' gotcha day.'
"When she came into my life, which would be March 21, 2016, she completely changed my life—she saved me," says Johnson of the four-leg friend who allows him to go to the grocery store, meetings, and reintegrate into a world he had lost touch with. "I'm not saying I'm the same old me that I was before the fire—but I'm a heck of a lot better than I was for a long time."
Realizing the benefits of having a 24/7 assistance dog, one of which is Maggie's ability to sense his oncoming flashback nightmares and wake him up, Johnson wanted others like him to benefit. In 2016, the retired cop co-founded Canadian Intervention Assistance Dogs alongside co-founders Angie Arra, AJ MacPherson and Dr. Eric Carnegy.
Focusing on the needs of first responders and veterans with PTSD, the volunteer-run non-profit works to provide assistance dogs, which can cost upwards of $35,000, to those in need. And just as medications are prescribed for different ailments, each dog is trained to meet the unique needs of veterans and first responders—free of cost.
"We get more out of it than what we give, because it truly is heart-driven," says CIAD chair and full-time nurse, Arra, who teasingly calls Johnson the organization's spokesmodel.
"When we meet these people, their injury has them in this place where they're so hyper-vigilant and so concerned with what's going on that they can't relax," says Arra. "Running into someone who's been paired with a dog at a big event like a wedding, with lots of noise and people, and they're laughing and smiling with a CIAD dog there in a service vest and a tuxedo—my heart is just overwhelmed that our small group is able to make that kind of impact."
Currently serving the Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island provinces, CIAD is working towards receiving accreditation through Assistance Dogs International, the international gold standard for service dogs.
And while the group is in its infancy and has a long way to go, Johnson hopes CIAD's upcoming work and fundraisers bring awareness to the plight of first responders and veterans with PTSD.
"There's people out there that want to make a difference, there's people that think they make a difference—I can genuinely say this team makes a difference and they save lives," says Johnson.
- Trails N' Tails – Support CIAD by attending their upcoming event, Trails N' Tails, for a walk in support of first responders and veterans living with PTSD. The fundraiser will also include a BBQ, raffle, 50/50 draws, family activities and live music.
- When: Oct 5 @ 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
- Where: 33 Leary Fraser Rd, Dayspring NS, Bridgewater, Nova Scotia
- For more info, visit www.ciad.ca