3 Jul 2015

Veterans with dogs: ‘without my dog I’d be dead’

Home Affairs Correspondent

Former Marine Craig MacLellan, who has been helped to survive post-traumatic stress disorder by the companionship of his pet Labrador, has set up Veterans with Dogs to help others like him.

Craig MacLellan is adamant about how critical a role dogs have played in his life. Without them, he says bluntly: “I’d be dead.”

His journey of recovery from the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD – a condition he is still living with) is a powerful story, with “assistance dogs” Fudge and Boo at the heart of it.

He joined the Marines aged just 16 and would later serve several tours in Northern Ireland. But his experiences there, as well as a bomb attack on his barracks in Kent in 1989 which killed 11 fellow Marines, would years later exert a heavy toll on his health.

He was 35 – five years out of the armed forces – when he suffered a severe breakdown. Crippling panic attacks, depression, hyper-vigilance and agoraphobia left him increasingly isolated. He rarely ventured out of the house and contemplated suicide.

Emotional sponge

It was during a six-week residential course with the charity Combat Stress that, while undergoing treatment, he experienced something unexpected.

A dog lover, Craig had asked the charity to let his Labrador Fudge accompany him on the course. After a couple of weeks, he and other veterans noticed a pattern. Once they closed the door during group therapy sessions, Fudge would wander around the room before settling down.

We started to notice that the dog would go back to a person to site with them. Craig MacLellan

“We started to notice she would go back to a person and sit with them,” Craig says.

“We started to realise it was the person who was feeling most anxious or the person who was slightly more emotional than other people.”

Fudge was a hit with other veterans on the course. “She became so popular,” says Craig, “that she would come out of a session with my group and she would go into a session with another group.

“The guys would actually come and ask me if they could borrow her. She was an emotional sponge for the six weeks we were there, not just for me but for everyone else around her.”

Everyday routines

Inspired by the experience, he set up the Veterans With Dogs charity in 2012. The dogs are trained to help veterans with mental health conditions, including PTSD.

The latest training course at the Seal-Hayne centre, run by the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust, brought together veterans and dogs to improve familiarity and develop basic assistance skills.

At its simplest, the dogs assist with everyday routines: opening doors, switching on lights, helping to fetch medication, even getting them up in the morning to make sure they don’t linger in bed for hours on end.

They are not an alternative to treatment, insists Craig, merely an important means of complementing it.

Boo, who succeeded Fudge as his main assistance dog, now accompanies Craig on shopping trips. If the situation becomes too stressful, Craig will kneel down and seek reassurance from the dog. He describes this as “grounding”.

New lease of life

These simple measures have given him and his wife, Chrissie, a new lease of life.

Chrissie says their lives have been transformed by the dogs and that her erstwhile role as “carer” has effectively been usurped by their Labrador.

It’s allowed the couple to regain a dynamic to their relationship which they thought they’d once lost.

I’ve had a new lease of life, and for me it’s seeing him as the man I knew. Chrissie MacLellan, Craig’s wife

“We have what you’d class as – for anybody else – relative normality,” she says.

Previously, Chrissie would have to escort Craig everywhere, such was his anxiety about being alone outside and in public.

“I don’t have that any more. And I’m more than happy with that; that the dogs do that part for me.

“I’ve had a new lease of life, and for me it’s seeing him as the man I knew.

“It’s awesome, absolutely awesome,’ she adds. “I wouldn’t want to go back to that dark place for him again.”

Overwhelmed with demand

Veterans With Dogs has provided around 60 former service personnel with assistance and companion dogs in the last three years. Craig says the referrals are coming in thick and fast.

“We are overwhelmed with demand. We can’t cope with the demand.

“We’ve got referrals every single day. It’s a case of us trying to play catch up all the time.”

He concedes he’s probably “too dependent” on his dogs. That may be so.

But even the briefest of meetings with Craig MacLellan, his wife Chrissie and their dogs Boo and Fudge, offers a compelling picture of how this simple scheme has – for one couple – proved life-changing.