One year ago, Retired Capt. Medric Cousineau was just a guy taking his dog for a walk – a really, really long walk.
Today, the retired Air Force navigator is still on the move, criss-crossing the country to maintain the public awareness and fundraising efforts for service dogs started by his Long Walk for Sanity from Halifax to Ottawa last year.
“A lot of stuff’s happened in a year,” said Cousineau during a coffee break in Halifax Tuesday, service dog Thai lying quietly at his feet. “Federally, provincially, municipally… we’re connecting with veterans and helping them. And it has been so successful.”
Service dogs aren’t a recognized form of treatment and so don’t qualify for federal government funding.
However, since last summer, a lot has changed. In May, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino announced a two-year pilot study of service dogs and their impact on the treatment of PTSD.
In Nova Scotia, Cousineau is working with the provincial government to ensure that a person with invisible disabilities who uses a service dog receives the same protection as a blind person using a guide dog.
“Both of us are disabled Nova Scotians, both live with a thing called a disability tax certificate, and both of us are treated differently,” he said. “ So they’re working on it.”
Cousineau’s political activism has helped increase public awareness, and growing numbers of veterans are reaching out to Cousineau’s organization, Paws Fur Thought, for help.
Thirty people have been matched with their fuzzy-faced miracle workers in the last year. Breeders in Canada and the U.S. have donated puppies for training, and trainers are stepping up to prepare both dogs and people for their new lives together.
“Not everybody is comfortable once they understand what’s entailed in getting a service dog,” said Cousineau. “Are you comfortable being the centre of attention in public? You’re the only guy in Wal-Mart with a dog, you tend to get a lot of questions.”
People and businesses have been generous with their dollars, but Cousineau says he needs corporate sponsorship to help the thousands more still in need.
“As fast as I can raise the money, I can start more dogs into the process…because the need is huge,” he said, adding that 99 cents of every dollar is devoted to the cost of acquiring and training dogs. “Unfortunately, it’s a sad reflection of the fact that we’ve got some broken people.”
Death of comedian Robin Williams hit ‘close to home’
Retired Air Force Capt. Medric Cousineau said he understands the engulfing blackness that drove Robin Williams to take his own life all too well.
Cousineau was injured in 1986 and struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts due to post-traumatic stress disorder for years afterwards until he was paired with Thai, his service dog, in 2012.
He says the loss of a brilliant actor should serve as an indication of just how crushing the invisible weight of depression can be.
“The funniest man in the world gets taken down by the darkest illness,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to get to the point where…you make a terminally irreversible decision, and it’s over.”
Cousineau said anyone worried about a friend or relative can help simply by showing concern, listening, and not dispensing platitudes about staying positive.
“In a lot of cases…what the person struggling needs is validation, to know that somebody heard them say, ‘Hey, I’m really not doing okay today,’” he said. “You’ve got to be comfortable saying, ‘It’s okay to not be okay. We’ll get through today and we’ll try tomorrow.’”