June 6, 2018

In many ways, Esther Vardy and her 16-month-old German shepherd, Gabe, are alike.

Both are bright, have a magnetic energy, and Vardy jokes that neither likes being told what to do.

The connection, though, runs much deeper than that.

One year ago, Gabe — then a three-month-old pup — saved Vardy's life, snapping her back to reality when everything in her brain told her suicide was the only option.

"That night when I was in major crisis and I happened to be alone ... he was there and was licking and he was at me, and if it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have been connected to reality long enough to know that what was happening was a crisis, psychosis and I needed to get some help," said Vardy, who has bipolar disorder.

"If he wasn't there, I wouldn’t be here today and since then."

Vardy and her husband founded Pawsology, a not-for-profit organization which pairs psychiatric service dogs with those who have a mental illness.

"You’re not training these dogs, these dogs are just growing with people who need them and the bond is happening and they start responding to the needs of whoever their handler is," Vardy said.

Creating a bond between a person and an animal allows those suffering with mental illness to break down tough exteriors and connect with people, Vardy said.

"There's something about a dog specifically that just connects with not just any human but they pick a human who becomes the centre of their world, and then that person experiences stuff, emotions and connections, they didn't think was possible."

Within the last six months, Vardy has helped stop the suicides of three people who reached out to her organization.

A dog named Victoria

Before Christmas, Victoria Best — a mental health advocate, animal lover and musician, took her own life.

Having been a friend of the family, the Bests reached out to Vardy in hopes she could continue their daughter's legacy and to continue her fight against mental illness.

"I thought what better way to do that than to bring a dog into the program and work towards being a service dog?" Vardy said.

Tori, a seven-month-old golden retriever, has joined Gabe in the Pawsology clan, and is currently working towards becoming a psychiatric service dog.

Tori (named after Victoria) has become a constant reminder for the Vardys of why they do the work they do.

"It sounds so bravado, but it's to save people’s lives at the end of the day," she said.

"Whether it’s mental health care, or the healthcare system as a whole, psychologist, psychiatrists, medications, you sort of need the full package, but even when all those things are together there’s still sometimes something missing."

That missing link is a dog — Vardy says she's living proof of that.

Dog trainer Glenn Redmond has been working with Tori for countless hours a week and has gone through her socialization stage, meeting people around town.

"We are doing a lot of stay work right now. With a service dog, stay is very important. you need to stay in restaurants around a ton of activity, with a lot of distractions," Redmond said.

Redmond said a service dog has to be able to be calm in public and be comfortable lying around for hours at a time.

"What we want is a solid temperament, [a dog who] is not afraid of anything but not so active to be doing something 24 hours a day."

As for Tori, Redmond said they are still deciding if she would be better as a therapy dog or a psychiatric service dog.

A decision will be made at 10-12 months of age.

When you ask Esther Vardy where she sees Pawsology in 10 years, she answers quickly and confidently.

"I would like to see Pawsology be the go-to mental health organization in Canada for psychiatric service dogs, I think it has the potential to do that, there's no other organization who does that."

Vardy said about 300 people from all over North America have reached out to her organization looking for a dog to help with their mental illness.

In order to keep up with demand, Pawsology is trying to think like a business, to find ways to generate revenue.

On May 12, Vardy told her personal story of attempting to take her own life and about the dog who stopped her, to a group of entrepreneurial professionals at Memorial University's social innovation challenge.

They awarded her a cash prize for her endeavor.

Gabe and Tori are the first steps in Pawsology's long-term plan, and proof that sometimes dogs are the best medicine.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text) | crisisservicescanada.ca (Chat)

In Quebec: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention.

Here are some warning signs:

Suicidal thoughts. Substance abuse. Purposelessness. Anxiety. Feeling trapped. Hopelessness and helplessness. Withdrawal. Anger. Recklessness. Mood changes.