Rescue 'water' dogs help soldiers cope with mental health problems as part of pioneering treatment

Rescue dogs are helping ex-soldiers in Leicestershire to cope with mental health problems.

Six ex-servicemen were 'rescued' by specially trained Newfoundland 'water' dogs as part of a unique NHS-supported exercise to help them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The four-hour experience, arranged by Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, involved trust exercises where participants were towed back to the shore by dogs Storm, Sonar and Walker.

Newfoundlands excel at water rescue and life-saving because of their muscular build, thick double coat, webbed paws and swimming skills.

The Newfoundland breed is known for its size, intelligence, strength, calm disposition, and loyalty. They excel at water rescue and life-saving because of their muscular build, thick double coat, webbed paws and swimming skills.

Trainer, Pete Lewin, has worked with water dogs as a hobby for around 25 years. He says it was personal experience and feedback from other participants about the mental wellbeing impact of the water rescues that made him realise their potential for a new and unique experience to support people with mental health needs.

It's an experience which allows you to take your mind off any issues. The dogs love it and they don't judge so people are free to take time to relax and experience the sights and sounds around them. I've lost two of my dogs quite recently and it's helped me personally.

Pete Lewin, Dog trainer

Darren's story:

The six participants included father-of-one Darren Smith from Beaumont Leys, who served in the 2nd Batallion Royal Anglian Infantry Regiment with tours in Northern Ireland and Iraq in 2005-6.

He says: "Iraq was the most mortared and bombed place in the world at that time. I was blown up by an IED but was lucky to come out of it pretty much unscathed with hearing damage.

"When I left the Army I tried to live a normal life but I slowly realised things weren't normal. I was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, flashbacks, poor sleep and hypervigilance which manifested itself in violence, although I tried hard to control myself.  I tried to keep it to myself - in the Army you are taught to be strong. Instead I was self-medicating with drink and attempted suicide twice. I live alone in a second floor flat and my drinking went through the roof during lockdown.

"I did find a really good doctor and was referred for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT|) and then I met Brendan. Now I'm working with him as a volunteer, supporting other veterans and that's really helping me. "Large numbers of combat veterans who served in Afghan and Iraq have a mental health condition, and too many of them are falling through the gaps without support or coping strategies. I don't know what to expect from the water experience but it sounds to me like a brilliant idea and I had heard about the positive effects of pets as therapy and swimming with dolphins. I am also hoping my experience will help with the support I am able to offer other veterans."

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