Training group loses funding after taking service dog back from officer with PTSD

A Nova Scotia group that trains service dogs for people with PTSD has lost its funding from a national organization amid an onslaught of online condemnation after it removed a service dog from a police officer struggling with trauma. 

Canadian Intervention and Assistance Dogs (CIAD) received approximately $150,000 over three years from Wounded Warriors Canada, a mental health service provider that assists veterans and first responders.

After CBC News reported the story of Debbie Carleton, a Halifax Regional Police officer whose service dog, Archie, was taken back by CIAD, Wounded Warriors Canada pulled its support.

“It’s obvious to us that somewhere along the line, CIAD just fell right off the board when it came to standards and therefore does not qualify for funding,” said Phil Ralph, director of health services for Wounded Warriors Canada. 

Carleton was diagnosed with severe PTSD after decades of working as a detective investigating sex crimes and human trafficking. She applied to CIAD for a service dog, hoping it would help her cope with her illness.

Halifax Regional Police officer Debbie Carleton took Archie home in 2019 after a letter from CIAD said he ‘met all of the training criteria and has passed the public access test as outlined by Assistance Dogs International.’ (Submitted by Cheryl Smith)

She was told in a July 2019 letter from CIAD’s board chair that she’d been matched with a dog that “met all of the training criteria and has passed the public access test as outlined by Assistance Dogs International, the gold standard for service dogs.”

Carleton said the person who delivered Archie to her acknowledged the dog had issues. Carleton said she repeatedly expressed concerns and asked for training help over the 18 months she and Archie were paired, but she said he never got the lessons he needed. 

At the end of November, CIAD asked for Archie to be returned to the organization as soon as possible for an assessment, telling Carleton it was necessary “in order to move you both forward in your partnership.”

On Dec. 10 in a Zoom meeting, Carleton was told Archie failed his tests and would not be returned to her as a service dog.

“It’s a horrible feeling. The void is unexplainable. It’s just heartbreaking,” said Carleton. 

“It’s been a very difficult time. My symptoms have become more prominent now. I have insomnia again, my appetite is gone, nightmares, night sweats. Everything is just coming back full force since they took him.”

CIAD maintains Archie was properly trained but problems developed after he was placed.

Debbie Carleton says she raised issues around Archie’s training to Canadian Intervention and Assistance Dogs multiple times over a year and a half. (Debbie Carleton)

CIAD, which is registered as non-profit society in Nova Scotia, provides a training schedule for service dogs on its website, but Carleton said it was not followed in her case.

The chair of CIAD’s board, Angie Arra, said training is an ongoing process.

“Dogs are sometimes like toddlers so there is some fluidity and a lot of reinforcement that needs to go with any dog, whether it’s a pet or a service dog, so it’s not uncommon for folks to run into struggles along the way,” Arra said.

She said CIAD has placed three service dogs and Archie is the only one they’ve removed. She said it was not a single incident that led to the decision, but “ongoing struggles and many factors involved.”

Arra noted the organization is still young and growing and learning.

“There’s a much stronger structure involved, and a mandatory followup versus kind of checking in and waiting for something to happen, and so really looking at much more preventative planning going forward,” she said.

While Wounded Warriors Canada has a reporting structure for those receiving funding, Ralph said CIAD “had been lax” and with the pandemic, it was not possible to travel to Nova Scotia to investigate. 

“The only thing we knew was what they were telling us, but it was quite obvious once we talked to Debbie and we read that CBC story that they weren’t doing what they said they were doing,” he said, noting his organization has subsequently tightened up its reporting requirements.

Debbie Carleton built a bond with her PTSD service dog, Archie. (Debbie Carleton)

Carleton said she received countless emails, calls and texts from people around the world concerned about the loss of Archie and its impact on her well-being, offering assistance or asking how to help.

A petition was started to get the dog back and several other organizations that provide service dogs have also offered their assistance. One of them, Paws Fur Thought, has offered to cover all expenses to fly Carleton to the U.S. for training with a new service dog.

“I was mortified, horrified. It was like, ‘Oh my god, what did they do?'” said Kim Gingell of Paws Fur Thought. She has also been diagnosed with PTSD and has a service dog. 

“It’s almost like they’re thinking for you. They know what you’re going to do so they really become a part of you,” Gingell said.

She said her dog recognizes her triggers and tries to distract her “just to bring me back and focus on something more positive.” Her dog was retired last year but remains with her. Gingell said she can’t imagine being separated from her. She said removing Archie is “just wrong” and the situation “has to be corrected.”

Carleton’s psychiatrist, Dr. Marina Sokolenko, emailed CIAD, urging that Archie be returned. She called the dog’s removal “inhumane” and “absolutely inappropriate” and said removal “may increase the risk to Carleton’s safety.”

Right now, there are no federal guidelines around training requirements for service dogs.

Ralph said Wounded Warriors tried to work with the Harper government to create legislation, but the effort failed because the government wanted consensus and all of the training organizations wouldn’t agree to the proposal.

Another part of the problem is that dogs fall under provincial jurisdiction. Currently, only British Columbia has regulations around the training of service dogs. 

“Anyone can say they train service dogs. All you need is the money,” Gingell said.

One of the other people who received a service dog from CIAD was Carleton’s friend, Doug Pynch. He said he was in disbelief when he learned the two had been separated.

Doug Pynch says his service dog, Catie, was not properly trained from the beginning. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

He said when he received his service dog three years ago, he was only given a piece of loose-leaf with a few commands written on it. Like Carleton, he found his golden retriever helped him, but she had issues with obedience. 

“To me, a service dog should already have been trained before I got her,” Pynch said.

He’s worried that he, too, might lose his dog.

“We don’t want to give these dogs up. We love them. They’re part of our families,” he said. 

Carleton said she feels as if she’s being blamed for the dog’s lack of training, but Arra said that’s not the case. No one at CIAD wanted this outcome and the organization feels bad about what happened, she said. 

As a result of the situation, Arra said the group has made changes, including improved communication with clients and more interaction with their medical teams.

She said while they do consult mental health professionals, CIAD did not speak to them about the best way to tell Carleton her dog would not be returned. 

As for calls to either return Archie as a pet or allow others to train him, Arra said her organization trains their dogs. She would not commit to returning Archie as a pet, saying if Carleton gets another service dog, Archie might be an impediment to that work.

“At this time, we would not place him as a pet because of the added stress to her and added work,” she said.

Debbie Carleton still has Archie’s leash, collar, service dog vest and toys in her New Brunswick home. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Carleton finds little solace in that. 

“They ripped away not just a dog, not just a service dog, but my lifeline,” Carleton said.

She hasn’t been outside her home since Archie left. She said she hasn’t celebrated Christmas and still has Archie’s wrapped present. 

“I’m grieving the loss of Archie, but I don’t know if he’s going to come back or I have to move on,” she said.

“It’s a horrible feeling to lose my best friend, my companion 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He was always with me.”

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