In nearly 20 years as a traffic services investigator with the RCMP, Steve Ouston often responded to dangerous situations on area highways.
In late November, Ouston — who retired from the Vernon North Okanagan RCMP after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2011, and had that upgraded to severe PTSD and depression at the beginning of 2019 — was returning home to the North Okanagan from a trip to the Lower Mainland.
With him was Tony, a 21-month-old golden retriever-yellow Lab cross dog. Tony is a PADS (Pacific Assistance Dog Society) service dog in training, who sensed something wasn’t right with his volunteer puppy-raiser.
“The Coquihalla (Highway) was bad, the roads were slippery and the traffic was somewhat challenging,” said Ouston, who turns 60 on Boxing Day. “Because I spent 18 years as a traffic services investigator, often dangerous situations in traffic will trigger me, and Tony sensed I was stressed. He was displaying signs of stress as well.
“I pulled over at a rest stop and was able to pet Tony and hug him, which calmed me down, and we were able to carry on. He’s very intuitive to what’s going on with me.”
Ouston and Tony were paired in January 2019 at the encouragement of Ouston’s counsellors.
“I thought I’d try a dog in training to begin with, to see if it would be a good fit for me, and he’s been a huge benefit,” Ouston said. “He and I work as a team to get him trained up enough to go to advanced training. When his time comes, and he’s second on the list to go to advanced training, he will go to an advanced trainer and become a working service dog.”
That will also be the end of Steve and Tony’s partnership.
The rule is you don’t get to keep your first dog,” said Ouston, who will have Tony with him when the Vernon Vipers welcome PADS Okanagan to Kal Tire Place for their final home game before Christmas, Dec. 18, against the Trail Smoke Eaters.
Norton, a PADS black Lab from a litter named after motorcycles, will drop the puck at the pre-game ceremonial face-off.
There will be about a dozen or so dogs and handlers at the game to hand out information on the society, and collect the game’s 50-50 raffle.
PADS Okanagan features a group of 30+ volunteers from Enderby to West Kelowna. They currently have more than 17 service-dogs-in-training. The dogs learn basic obedience and have full public access, allowing them to learn to work in many different locations with all sorts of distractions that they might encounter in their working lives.
“Dogs are usually in the Okanagan for about 18 months, then the next step is advanced training either in Burnaby or Calgary,” said Brian Smith, Okanagan development coordinator for PADS.
Ouston said the evening at the hockey game is a good opportunity for people interested in PADS to check out the organization.
“We’re always looking for volunteers,” he said.
PADS breeds, raises and trains fully-certified assistance dogs. The service and hearing dogs provide life-changing independence to those with physical disabilities other than blindness.
The accredited facility dogs work with community professionals such as teachers, RCMP and psychologists to help support healthy communities.