Changing lives, two at a time

Changing lives, two at a time

My Churchill Fellowship in 2015 was about how specially trained assistance dogs can mitigate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.

A photograph of three dogs laying on the floor
Dogs who have been trained as part of the Service Dogs UK programme Download 'Garry(2).jpg'
"The PTSD Assistance Dog programme has proved it can have a significant role in helping veterans." - Garry Botterill, Fellow

Following my Fellowship, I set up Service Dogs UK, a charity that pairs assistance dogs with former military and emergency service personnel who have PTSD. Our programme has been formulated following the extensive research made possible by my Fellowship. I took the best parts from the USA and the Netherlands programmes that I visited and from them developed a model for the UK. The programme has been proven at every level and is the only UK PTSD assistance dog programme accredited internationally and the only member of Assistance Dogs UK.

Why this support matters

Our veterans, military and emergency services personnel are the people who run toward the danger that others flee from. They are the people who fight in wars abroad on our behalf or work in the most dangerous and traumatic situations at home to keep us safe. Sadly, for some there is a cost, and when risking life or dealing with frequent trauma or experiencing horror, it is possible to receive a mental injury that can have a devastating effect. PTSD has affected service personnel returning from the front line abroad and from past conflict, but is also increasingly affecting our emergency services personnel.

As we have become more aware about mental health issues and are more cognisant of our own mental health, it is hoped that the reduced stigma will bring early identification and interventions that will curtail the numbers of people affected by post traumatic stress and will enable them to recover. For those suffering from PTSD at this moment, we must seek ways in which to help them, and the PTSD Assistance Dog programme has proved it can have a significant role in helping veterans who are motivated by becoming part of an assistance dog partnership.

Recommendations for our emergency services

Blue light services, their prospective leaders and associated charities need to accept there is a lack of financial support for those with PTSD to help them cope with the condition. They should find ways to work better together to address the problem within their organisations. Serving or retired officers and staff from the 999 services who are currently struggling with PTSD should be afforded ongoing assistance in the same way as the armed forces offer assistance to military veterans.

It should be recognised that PTSD affects individuals differently, its impact on everyday life will vary greatly and the therapies and interventions that are available will have different levels of success on different people. What works for some won’t work for others and we should provide the type of help that provides the best possibility of improvement for the veteran.

Investment is needed in specialist individualised help for veterans. Following clinical therapies and counselling, many veterans are signposted by counsellors to small charities that tap into the innate motivations of the veteran and that are often successful at significantly improving outcomes - but they need funding to provide help.

In our enthusiasm to get upstream of the problem, we mustn’t forget those still floundering in the water. The surge in mental health awareness, along with measures to enhance wellbeing and improve resilience for colleagues, are commendable and to be encouraged - but we must also do our utmost to help those drowning in real time.

What are we doing about it?

At Service Dogs UK, our veterans have ongoing support from us for the life of the partnership and are prioritised for successor dogs. We constantly evaluate our its effectiveness as an animal assisted intervention programme for veterans with PTSD. We survey all of our veterans midway through the programme, and on completion, to understand how we make a difference.

Our latest survey of 10 veterans showed enormous improvements in being able to relax more, having better self-confidence, being able to socialise, increased motivation, better anger and frustration management, confidence in public, getting out and talking more.

Every one of the veterans has their own story of how the programme has changed their lives. A great example is Kerry, who says: “Thank goodness I found Service Dogs UK, who understood everything I was going through. Little did I know how Bert the dog and the programme would change everything for me”.

Kerry had contemplated taking her own life before starting with Service Dogs UK. She now runs a community charity, for which she received an MBE, and fosters dogs for the charity as a volunteer to help others.

Next steps

I now hope to raise awareness that emergency services personnel, serving or retired, need ongoing help if they have a clinical diagnosis of PTSD - and that it is the duty of the emergency services community to ensure they get it.

I also am seeking to increase financial support for the charity from the emergency services community, so that those who might benefit from our programme can access it.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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