Invictus 2018 is now over but while the athletes and families head home, we have been taking a look at those who volunteered and gave up their time to support these Games.
Among them are 12 Labradors and their handlers from Integra Service Dogs Australia, who have been on hand throughout the Games.
Alf and Maple are two of the Labradors who, along with volunteer handlers, met spectators, families and athletes around the park, helping with the stress of crowds and competing.
Brigadier Mark Holmes, chairman of Integra Service Dogs Australia, told Forces News how popular the dogs were:
“We didn’t intend to have a mascot for any of the teams. We don’t have enough dogs to do that.
“Many of the competitors who have spent some time with the animals either in Invictus Games House or at some of the other venues have just said, ‘It would be really great if you could come to my event, can you be at this particular venue? It would be really good if you could bring Hooper or Maple or Bear… Or one of the other animals’, and we’ve managed to be able to do that.”
There have been 12 specially trained Labradors on hand during the Invictus Games.
Integra Service Dogs Australia was founded by two veterans to provide canine companions and extra support for first responders and men and women transitioning out of the Australian Defence Force.
Ben Johnson, CEO and Co-founder of the charity, highlighted the importance of the dogs for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): “There are a lot of men and women who are coping with severe post-traumatic stress.
“Obviously, one of the key challenges they find is being extremely anxious in open spaces with other people…coming and going.
“That dog becomes their rock, becomes their anchor, and knows [if] you’re starting to show twitching… to stutter. ‘Your body chemistry is actually changing, and I as your mate, can smell and detect that.’ That alerting is just incredibly powerful.
“The dog will paw in, touch bark or alert to get that veteran focused back on their dog.
“Through that anchoring with the dog, they can manage then cope with the stresses that otherwise would push them into a very difficult space.”
At the Invictus Games, the dogs have been a lifeline for competitors who may have had to leave their own pets and service dogs thousands of miles away. So they have been filling in.
One of the volunteers, Erynn Johnson, talked about her experience: “Particularly in the first two nights that we were here, we had the opening ceremony and Luna Park event…
“They’re quite loud events and we had a huge crowd, so we had a lot of people who were in situations where they were seeking support from us and the dogs. We were in quieter spaces alongside them.
“I’ve met lots of similar faces each day that come over and ask for cuddles, and so it’s lovely to have a continual conversation and see how they’re tracking throughout the games.”
Another volunteer, Eliza Wunsch, added: “You can see the effect that it has on people.
“We have big guys coming over to play with the puppy and just be laughing like a kid again. It’s such a heartwarming experience and everyone loves the dogs.”
The competitors are certainly big fans of the dogs, as Mark Daniels, a Team Australia athlete, emphasised: “Whoever thought to have the dogs here is probably the best person in the world, because the dogs are the best part of these games.
“I think for a lot of us, we’re all pretty highly strung and highly stressed with the competitive atmosphere. There’s massive crowds, there’s a lot of pressure on you to achieve your best and there’s no real downtime.
“Having those couple of minutes of air to sit and pat the dogs or having a quick cuddle with them, or you see them out, they bring your anxiety down.
“It’s great having them out here and I think all the competitors are extremely grateful they are.”
The Labradors will now return to their roles supporting veterans and first responders across the country.