Evidence of meeting #26 for Veterans Affairs in the 43rd Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was study.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Crystal Garrett-Baird  Director General, Policy and Research, Department of Veterans Affairs
Nathan Svenson  Director, Research, Department of Veterans Affairs
Alexandra Heber  Chief of Psychiatry, Health Professionals Division, Department of Veterans Affairs

5:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you.

Up next is MP Blaney for two and a half minutes.

5:40 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you again to the witnesses. I'm finding this very informative.

First, what would be the process of taking the guidelines that Wounded Warriors is putting together and moving them to a national standard?

5:40 p.m.

Director General, Policy and Research, Department of Veterans Affairs

Crystal Garrett-Baird

I'll provide a couple of introductory comments. Then I'll ask Dr. Heber to speak to some of the considerations from a mental health perspective.

That really was the reason we engaged the board—to develop that national standard. When there was no consensus, we moved forward with research—

5:40 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

Can I just pause you right there? This detail is so important. You keep saying there was “no consensus”. Is there anything we can look at as a committee that outlines where the barriers were for them? “No consensus” is good, but what was it? Was it the fact that there was inconsistent training in Canada? I'm trying to understand what “no consensus” really means.

5:40 p.m.

Director General, Policy and Research, Department of Veterans Affairs

Crystal Garrett-Baird

Certainly. Thank you for that clarification.

I'll ask Nathan to speak to the areas that created some challenges in coming to a consensus by the board.

5:40 p.m.

Director, Research, Department of Veterans Affairs

Nathan Svenson

There are some providers in Canada who have been doing this for a very long time. Earlier, one of the members asked about simply adopting the Assistance Dogs International standards. That was one of the proposals that were discussed with the standards board and met opposition, because the people who are currently supplying dogs in Canada don't all subscribe to those standards. It's not that they can't meet them; it's that some of the providers felt that the Assistance Dogs International standards were not stringent enough and did not require enough hours of training for the dogs. On the other side, some of the schools that did subscribe to that standard didn't agree with the other providers.

I don't want to get into a one-versus-one comparison of the providers, but in general, it's not practical for the department to say “Here is how it has to be” if nobody in the country can provide up to that standard. In the United States, where the larger study was done, the volume of dogs is greater—they have 30 times as many veterans in the U.S. as we do here. The supply needs to be a practical consideration, and the people who are providing those dogs need to be able to meet whatever standards are put in front of them.

5:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you. I'm afraid that's time.

Up next is MP Wagantall for five minutes, please.

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Thank you so much, Mr. Chair.

Just off the bat, I want to say that this is an issue that I'm very passionate about.

I want to thank you, Ms. Garrett-Baird. You have mentioned over and over again what you realized—that you did need to go somewhere to find those standards—and I applaud you that you went to the Canadian General Standards Board to do this. The issue for me is that, number one, psychiatric service dogs are a very unique designation for our veterans. It doesn't have to be a specific type of dog—it can be all kinds of dogs—but it's a very unique capability for these dogs to have. I applaud you that you went there to get those standards.

The fact that we are as far down the road as MP Blaney has indicated is our problem. There are too many players already, who have money in the game even—

5:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

I'm sorry, Cathay. I will have to stop the clock. Unfortunately, we don't have any French interpretation.

Okay. We can continue.

Mr. Clerk, can you advise us on how much time we have left on the clock for Cathay?

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Five minutes, Chair.

5:45 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

5:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Go ahead, Cathay.

I'll give you the one-minute mark at some point.

May 12th, 2021 / 5:45 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Thank you.

We really need to solve this problem for our veterans. Basically, I think our issue is that there wasn't consensus on that board and in the group who were working on it, so they discontinued. What were the circumstances that brought us to that point? That's the whole purpose of this standards board. They deal with all kinds of complicated issues. What was it?

Quite honestly, from my understanding, there were conflicts of interest there because of the roads that a number of those organizations had already gone down. As you said, they could not come to an agreement around the fact that there's a huge difference between an obedience dog and a service dog.

I really think it is important that we find the people with the credibility and the research—and we have them in Canada—to take another crack at this and do what needs to be done. People who do not have money in the game or have not received funding directly from the government to fund service dogs can bring about the standards that we know we can have in Canada for them.

I would encourage you to look at that. We'll certainly be looking at that as a committee. A lack of consensus there was not because of the complexity of the issue; it was because of conflicts of interest, I believe, within that group. That's so key when you're trying to set standards. You need to move out and have people who are not part of that dynamic so extensively that they can't look at it objectively.

I don't know if that's something you would say was part of that dynamic or not, or whether you're prepared to go there.

5:45 p.m.

Director General, Policy and Research, Department of Veterans Affairs

Crystal Garrett-Baird

The focus of the work was looking to develop a national standard. Consensus was not reached, as Nathan indicated earlier, because of the various complexities across the country with some of the groups providing service dogs, what standards to meet, the international standard and that type of thing. That was one of the main reasons the consensus did not come to be.

I think it is important to point out the work that is happening in both Australia and the United States and how closely we are following that, in lockstep with those allied partners—

5:50 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Can I just comment, though, Ms. Garrett?

If they can do it, we can do it. They have the same kind of dynamics in their countries in regard to individual organizations working with service dogs. You have to come to a point where you can find the people who are the experts and don't have that vested interest directly in providing service dogs.

We have everything in this country, from dogs that cost $30,000 to dogs that are provided free of charge through the training and whatnot. We have that breadth because we don't have those standards. I would say that we can certainly do it within this country based on the models we're seeing in Australia and the U.S., to bring it home to Canada so that we can take care of our veterans in the same way.

5:50 p.m.

Director General, Policy and Research, Department of Veterans Affairs

Crystal Garrett-Baird

I would like to ask Dr. Heber to provide some context around PTSD and effective treatments, and some of the other bigger considerations that we also look at from a veteran's perspective.

Dr. Heber.

5:50 p.m.

Chief of Psychiatry, Health Professionals Division, Department of Veterans Affairs

Dr. Alexandra Heber

As I mentioned earlier, we have a number of standardized treatments where we have evidence of good effect for a condition like PTSD, as well as for other mental health conditions that somebody could receive a service dog for.

Then there are a number of what we might call complementary or adjunctive supports that people can have. Often those are to help them decrease their symptoms so that things are more manageable for them. That's one of the roles veterans tell us that service dogs can provide—

5:50 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Dr. Heber, I'm sorry to interrupt you. I have one minute left.

I totally agree with you that there are different needs, but I believe that VAC's responsibility is to deal with the need for a psychiatric service dog, which is a very specific designation. If we were to do that, the rest is more manageable.

I have an autistic grandson who has a Lab. That meant that his mom could finally get some sleep. They couldn't afford the $30,000 version, so they got their own Lab and my son trained him. He's doing the job for what they need. I understand the breadth—the complementary versus the direct treatment—but I would say VAC's responsibility is to deal specifically with the need for psychiatric service dogs and that unique designation. That's where it can do the most good in assisting our veterans.

I'm hearing all the time that it does make a significant difference to the other types of treatments they need, for those who have it.

5:50 p.m.

Chief of Psychiatry, Health Professionals Division, Department of Veterans Affairs

Dr. Alexandra Heber

Yes, absolutely. That's what I was saying, too. It can help them with symptoms when it's a well-trained service dog that is able to perform that function.

5:50 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Yes.

5:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

Up next is MP Casey, for five minutes, please.

5:50 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I'll start with Ms. Garrett-Baird.

In your opening remarks, you indicated that the United States has a program that includes standards for support dogs for hearing, vision and mobility, and that they have conducted studies in connection with support dogs for PTSD.

Am I right that hearing, vision and mobility have an accepted standard, but it is still a work in progress with respect to psychiatric assistance dogs in the United States?

5:50 p.m.

Director General, Policy and Research, Department of Veterans Affairs

Crystal Garrett-Baird

Yes. The United States, as noted, is very well advanced in research and the benefits related to service dogs. Currently, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs service dog veterinary health benefit provides service dogs to veterans for issues relating to hearing, vision and mobility. Based on their five-year study, they're looking right now at what changes they might want to pursue in the future. That's what we're closely monitoring.

I'll ask Nathan to add some additional context from a research perspective on that issue.

5:55 p.m.

Director, Research, Department of Veterans Affairs

Nathan Svenson

There are two things I want to add.

One is that the U.S. study really did—

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

My question is whether they have adopted a standard for psychiatric assistance dogs, or whether that's still a work in progress.