09/05/2013 04:02 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

Fundraiser aims to expand access to companion dogs for soldiers with PTSD

OTTAWA - Warrant Officer Jocelyn "Butch" Boucher had one of those stressful, unenviable jobs that always seem to fall to senior non-commissioned officers in the military.

An air force intelligence and research analyst, it was Boucher's responsibility in the fall of 2008 to anticipate for the commander of HMCS Ville de Quebec what Somali pirates were up to in the Gulf of Aden.

It was a mission with lethal potential, one that the frigate and her crew of some 225 had not anticipated — nor had they established a network of intelligence contacts necessary to operate in those perilous waters, where freighters were being hijacked almost daily.

There were moments, Boucher says, when you never knew what was going to happen next.

Boucher was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress following the deployment, and now awaits word on whether a medical discharge will end his military career of more than three decades.

He's one of the thousands of veterans whose "heart and soul have not come home" from the conflicts the country sent them to, said Philip Ralph, a Canadian Forces Baptist minister and member of Wounded Warriors Canada.

The charity kicked off a planned 2014 cycling fundraiser Thursday with a pledge to put the proceeds toward expanding programs that help veterans access service dogs for therapy.

A growing body of research, mostly in the United States, has shown how soldiers with post traumatic stress bond with the dogs, and easing their anxiety.

Boucher, who has his own dog Spirit, says acceptance of the therapy needs to be more widespread.

"I didn't feel comfortable in my skin," said Boucher.

Since Spirit has joined us, joined my family, she is ice-breaker, the one that allows me to open up and talk about these events that have happened in my life."

Veterans Affairs Canada for years has kept a skeptical eye on the use of "service animals."

The department covers costs for veterans who use service dogs for physical disabilities, including blindness, but don't do the same for those suffering from mental health issues.

A pilot program was launched last spring, in co-operation with St. John Ambulance Canada, to research the benefit of using dogs and horses to assist veterans with post traumatic stress.

But internal briefings going back three years cast a doubtful tone, saying there has been little peer-reviewed research, and raising questions about the ability of veterans to care for the animals.

"While there may be potential benefits, risks must be considered, such as the risk to the well-being of the individual who is not successful in feeding and looking after the animal in his or her care," said a 2010 briefing for former veterans minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn.

The research proposal, launched last spring, was under consideration at the time of the briefing, the note said.

Veterans officials endorsed the notion that all other "proven" treatment methods be exhausted before "alternative" methods were tried.