Abbie changed my life: Army veteran spreading the word about the benefits of service dogs in coping with PTSD

By Lachlan Durling

FOR Chris Roberts every day was a struggle.

Serving in the army for almost 11 years, Chris returned home plagued by a common condition for veterans — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

‘‘After I got out of the army, life wasn’t the same,’’ he said.

From a happy and healthy young man, Chris returned home to a life that had become foreign to him.

‘‘I have some injuries you can see, but the one you can’t is my mental health,’’ he said.

Regular panic attacks and a constant sense of anxiety ate away at him as he imagined the worst-case scenario.

These were simple situations such as leaving the house, doing the shopping or looking after the children.

He was defenceless against attacks, and would have to ‘ride it out’ until it passed or completely avoid any situations that would make him stressed.

That was, until he met Abbie.

She is a service dog who can do almost anything, from sensing when Chris is about to have a panic attack to turning on lights so he doesn’t have to enter a dark room.

‘‘Abbie has changed my life. She can pick up on my mood and knows if I’m anxious or about to have a panic attack,’’ Chris said.

‘‘We (humans) give off an odour that we can’t smell but she can, she’s my early warning system that something is about to happen.’’

Chris travels from Rochester to volunteer one day a week at the Goulburn Valley Veterans Services Centre in Shepparton RSL, where he is part of a team who help veterans with things such as pensions, DVA cards, and occupational therapy specialists among other things.

One of the services they offer is assisting people applying to receive assistance dogs like Abbie.

These dogs have a very similar role to seeing eye dogs — only they offer emotional support as opposed to leading their owner.

They also have the same rights as seeing eye dogs.

However Young Veterans national president Mathew Keene said there are more and more cases of dogs being turned away from businesses unfairly.

Young Veterans is a volunteer-run group that aims to bring veterans who are isolated or suffering from PTSD or anxiety back connecting with society.

‘‘It (Young Veterans) is about moving forward, re-engaging and inspiring young veterans, showing that we can achieve and succeed far beyond our time in service,’’ Mr Keene said.

‘‘We are receiving more and more feedback of veterans being turned away — anything from shops within shopping centres to medical centres.’’

Mr Keene said the occurrences aren’t purely discrimination-based, but are caused by a lack of understanding about the role a service dog plays in society.

‘‘This is due to business owners not understanding the rules and regulations in relation to guide dogs or assistance dogs,’’ Mr Keene said.

‘‘Employers, goods and service providers and others must not discriminate against someone because they have a service dog.’’

In August 2011 the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 protection was expanded from guide dogs working with people who have visual impairments to all assistance dogs.

The act states it is also unlawful to refuse to provide accommodation to a person with a disability because they have a guide dog or assistance dog.

Chris said he had only experienced this once with Abbie and said while he understood how some business owners may not be aware of the law, he didn’t want other sufferers to be turned away.

‘‘PTSD service dogs have the same right of access as seeing eye dogs, and they are allowed into any public place,’’ Chris said.

‘‘I just want to make it known.’’