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Sonny Wicks is a familiar face at Cole Harbour High School, where he’s worked for the past 18 years as Head of Security. In April 2015, students and staff were introduced to a new face that will be joining him in the halls every day. A school assembly educated students about the importance of Sonny’s new canine companion, Tru.
Tru- short for Trooper- is a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder service dog. She’s been training over the past year to be specially matched with Sonny and his unique needs, funded by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia’s PTSD Service Dog Matching Initiative for first responders.
The Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia’s PTSD Service Dog Matching Initiative grew out of a partnership with Medric Cousineau, military veteran and founder of Paws Fur Thought - a service dog matching program for military service members facing PTSD. Medric had been overwhelmed by requests from first responders in critical need of help. Their needs, however, fell outside his organization’s funding mandate.
Launched at the 2014 Compass Group Canada Festival of Trees, the new Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia initiative has been an incredible success. Donations at the event and over the past four months, including in memory of Caitie Miller, have made it possible for the Foundation to fund 32 matches, of which Sonny is the first.
Sonny lives with PTSD. Its onset, he says, was brought on by an accumulation of stressful and traumatic situations experienced throughout his career in security and with the RCMP Auxiliary. His mental illness manifests itself as anxiety, panic attacks, obsessions and compulsions, social avoidance and difficulties traveling outside the city of Halifax. Sonny says his PTSD has grown especially difficult over the past four years, impairing his ability to function, and decreasing his whole family’s quality of life.
On April 10th, 2015, Tru arrived at the Halifax airport on a flight from Alberta. She was accompanied by trainer Rebecca Santanna of the NASH project. The NASH project works closely with the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia’s matching facilitator Medric Cousineau to train service dogs for those living with PTSD.
Although Tru visited Sonny for an introductory week in December, April 10th marked Sonny and Tru’s first day as a forever-pair. Tru has been training rigorously to learn the best ways to support Sonny and intervene with his symptoms.
“When I’m anxious or agitated, I’ll go around compulsively straightening things, like lines of shoes,” Sonny says. “She’ll come behind me and mess them up. If I’m fidgeting or tapping, she’ll place her paw right over my hands to stop it.”
Sonny frequently triggers while driving or visiting large public places – leading to avoidance and isolation. Having Tru alongside him in the car has already improved his ability to access the world. In fact, on their first day together, the pair went to the mall – a place Sonny had previously always avoided.
Tru is also in tune with Sonny’s scent. She’ll wake him up when he’s having a night terror.
In the first few weeks, Sonny, Medric and Rebecca worked to orient Tru to her new surroundings and life demands. Specifically, Tru learned how to handle working alongside Sonny during weekdays at the high school.
“We’re working to become partners, and family. We’re learning to watch out for each other.”
Sonny says his whole family will benefit from having Tru on their team. They’ll be able to travel outside of Halifax. His daughter, who struggles with her own medical issues, lights up when Tru is near.
“I’m so grateful to the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, the donors who have made this possible, the NASH project, and Medric,” Sonny says. “This has already changed my life.”
If Sonny could pass along any message to other first responders struggling with PTSD, it would be to reach out and inquire about being matched. “This is the greatest companion you’ll ever have.”
Story photography provided by Amanda Wicks