Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
William Woolfrey, who served in the Navy as a permanent reservist for 29 years and eight months, said getting a therapy dog after he was medically discharged was like pulling teeth.
Woolfrey, now 60, has high levels of anxiety, major depressive order and partial post traumatic stress disorder. He went to the federal Veteran’s Affairs department and the Legion for help getting a therapy dog that could give him companionship when he was forced to retire 12 years ago.
“They said they could get me a Labrador or German shepherd, which when I need him to sit on my lap, doesn’t really work,” he said.
Without many options, Woolfrey was forced to train his dog himself. He was able to get his Boston terrier, Daisy, certified as a therapy dog, which allows her to accompany him in public buildings and restaurants and also allowed him to keep her when he moved into the Cherish retirement home in Langford. Woolfrey has had the now seven-year-old Daisy since she was six weeks old.
“She was needed,” he said. “I’d been seeing a psychologist for a number of years and they advised me that I needed a companion, because at that point I was having suicidal thoughts and she took it away.”
Although Daisy is certified and Woolfrey’s fellow residents have grown to love having her around — “some of them now need daily Daisy time,” he said – Woolfrey still occasionally gets pushback when he attempts to bring his dog into some public buildings.
“When you get challenged, it sends your anxiety levels through the roof,” he said.
Woolfrey is moving into a new building that did not object once he showed them Daisy’s certification, but that is not always the case, he said.
Joining as a reservist when he was 16, Woolfrey eventually became a permanent member worked as a marine service engineer on six ships, sailing everywhere from the Panama Canal to the Arctic Ocean. One of his favourite memories was working on civilian construction projects for three months in the Arctic.
“When people ask, ‘did you feel secluded?’ I say, ‘Not really. It was nice just to get out and have a breath of fresh air and not listen to the city sounds.’”
Woolfrey, who retired as a chief petty officer second class, also looks back fondly on his work training younger recruits.
“You can have a smart person on paper. But when it comes to reality, if they can’t listen to the sounds of the engine – basically, you want you want to correct the problem before it becomes a problem. That’s what I instilled in all the guys I trained.”
The camaraderie is what Woolfrey misses most.
“I don’t regret my service. I loved what I did. However, it didn’t take the path that I wanted, but I loved what I did,” he said.
But more supports should be made available to veterans, especially when it comes to providing service and therapy animals, Woolfrey said.
“There was a period there that a number of service members, after they were released, committed suicide,” he said. “They obviously needed something there wasn’t there.”
Veterans Affairs currently doesn’t have funding to provide therapy dogs for veterans, but a spokesperson for the department said the Medical Expense Tax Credit was expanded in 2018 to help cover the costs.
Making it easier to get veterans’ dogs certified and the costs covered should be a priority, Woolfrey said.
“Training dogs for duty should not be an enterprise, it should not be a cash grab,” he said. “As a (former) service member, if I needed a dog for my needs, why isn’t Veterans Affairs paying for that? Veterans Affairs, should be standing there saying, ‘Okay, this guy suffers from the following conditions. He needs a dog.’”
The federal department conducted a study in 2018 to assess whether therapy dogs would have a positive impact for veterans.
“The study had promising results, but it had a very small sample size – it started with 31 veterans and finished with 18 – so we do need to review this data and fully understand it before making policy decisions,” a statement on Veterans Affairs’ website reads. “The pilot study report and its findings are being reviewed by departmental officials and will be used to inform policy decisions related to service dogs.”
If you need immediate emotional assistance, call Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888.