It’s a dogs life: the West Sussex charity treating PTSD by matching service dogs with veterans

It is all wet noses, wagging tails and hand fed treats at the training sessions for Service Dogs UK.

Gary Botterill
Gary Botterill

The West-Sussex charity, which helps former members of the emergency services and armed forces cope with mental health conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, scoops up rescue dogs and trains them to become fully accredited service dogs, equipped to support their owners through whatever life might throw at them. After a brief acclimatization period with a foster owner, the dogs are paired up with their real owner, the person they’ll spend the rest of their lives safeguarding and supporting. From there, the two start training together, going through drills and support exercises designed to encourage a deep and abiding bond.

It is, in more than one sense, mutually therapeutic. Veterans living with mental illness form a bond with an animal designed to support them and the dogs- often abandoned by prior families- create a new, more secure and more reliable relationship with someone who loves them.

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That reflects in the atmosphere of the training hall, where veterans working with Service Dogs UK meet up twice a week to put their pups through their paces. Though training has since stopped in the wake of the corona virus lock down, the atmosphere at regular Service Dog Uk training session is insistently positive, feeding off the energy of the pooches themselves. The veterans, many of whom suffer with Post-Traumatic Stress, appear relaxed and happy. Those who arrive feeling off-kilter, anxious or depressive, often find their feet again, even if only for the moment.

Service dogs 2

For Gary Botterill, who started Service Dogs UK in 2015 and continues to run it, that positivity is very important, both for the dogs and the veterans they are supporting. He said: “we are really keen on positive reinforcement, so everything about the training is positive. When you’re teaching a dog not to be worried about the outside world, you’re also teaching yourself. So there are lots of positives to the people taking part.

“It’s a structured session, with lots of achievements on the way, and for some people with low self-esteem, it’s really great positive feedback for them and the dogs. The whole experience is really positive.”

A veteran of the Royal Navy and now serving with the police force, , Gary has his own experience with mental health, having seen a friend from the police force struggle with his mental health after a particularly dangerous job. He said: “That, for me, was really difficult because I’d seen someone go from a strong, brave person to really struggling and actually finding life very, very difficult.

“It concerned me that any one of us can, with the right (or wrong) circumstances, find ourselves in that situation. More and more people around me were beginning to struggle with PTSD and I wanted to do something positive.”

Service dogs spaniel

Looking for a way to help, Gary turned to the states, where a successful new programme was using animal therapy as a means of treating veterans. After working out a travel grant with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, he was able to head out there and bring some ideas back to Britain, founding Service Dogs UK in 2015. The charity has moved from strength to strength ever since.

He said: “We’re having a fantastic effect on veterans, living with the dogs has changed their lives significantly.”

That’s a momentum Gary hopes to preserve as he looks forward to the charity’s future. He has big plans for Service Dogs UK. Not only is he hoping to attract new sponsors and new foster families, he’s also looking to expand. At the moment, the charity is having to turn away some members because they are not always able to access the training sessions. Finding another hub is first on his list of priorities.

He said: “We want to grow. We’re fairly portable as an organisation because we don’t have a headquarters. We don’t have a big building out in the countryside. We are what we are, which is lean and able to punch above our weight.”

To find out more about Service Dogs UK, volunteer to become a foster or donate, visit www.servicedogsuk.org