A Veteran’s Best Friend (AVBF) – a newly established armed forces veteran’s charity based in Fife that aims to help veterans with mental health conditions, in Scotland. This will be done by providing mental health assistance dogs and providing a drop-in-centre for the local veterans to make use of 5 days a week.

This is something close to The Founder’s (Mick Cairns) heart.  He himself is a Royal Marine veteran who has had his own mental battles to fight.  He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anankastic Personality Disorder (perfectionist personality disorder) back in Oct 2019.  It was the reaction his dog Sam gave him the day he got signed off from work in Feb 2019, that made Mick want to learn more about what dogs can do to improve people’s mental health; Mick said, “he looked at me in a way I’d never seen before and he wouldn’t leave me alone, he knew something just wasn’t right”.  This led Mick to set up his own charity after volunteering with a similar charity in the west coast called Bravehound

The difference with Mick’s charity is that he will use rescue dogs exclusively and he aims to have a drop-in-centre which will also be used for group therapy sessions for the veterans.  Mick thinks that rescue dogs can be just as good as any other dog when it comes to being an assistance dog.  He thinks that due to the pandemic we will see a high volume of dogs getting put into shelters because people are struggling to pay for the dogs’ upkeep.  So, Mick wants to do his bit, plus he thinks you get a unique bond from rescue dogs, “It is like the dog and veteran are rescuing each other”, Mick explains.  The dogs will have a great sense of purpose and so will the veteran.  The dog gives the veteran a reason to get out of bed in the morning, something else to look after and more importantly, gets them out of the house.   Social isolation is a massive problem with someone struggling with their mental health; therefore, the dogs get them outside in the fresh air and speaking to other people.  Mick said that “you end up talking about your dog with other dog owners, which can lead to long lasting relationships”.  Mick explains that he has made some of his best friends whilst walking his dogs.

Mick thinks the charity is needed here in Fife, the surrounding areas and Scotland as a whole.  He believes there is still a lot of stigma around mental health especially within the armed forces community, serving or not serving.  It took Mick 7 years to get help after his traumatic experience in Afghanistan in 2011, he said it was 7 years of hell.  Mick said, “it is hard when you are in a macho environment to come forward because you are scared of looking weak in front of your peers”.  Mick wants to encourage people to talk and know that they are not alone, and it is okay, not to be okay. From what Mick experienced whilst volunteering at Bravehound, veterans feel more comfortable speaking to other veterans. It is not anything against the non-veteran community, they can just relate to each other in a unique way and they can have a bit of banter with each other too.

AVBF have found it difficult getting funding due to being a newly established charity. They got their charity status in Sept 2020, but most funders are looking for a 12-month history, which includes a financial history, which Mick struggles to understand. Mick said, “we need money to create a history”.  Mick just wants people to believe in them and take a chance on them.  They have not sat on their laurels though, Mick raised money in Oct by running a gruelling 30-mile march, with 40lbs on his back, in under 8 hours (7hrs 40mins to be exact).  This was to simulate what he had to go through on his final test to become a Royal Marine Commando.  He managed to raise just over £1700, which was amazing! He said he could have never done it without the support of his family and friends, his good friend’s Sean Murphy (owner of Beath Fry & Kinross Fry and the charities sponsor) and Stephen Lindsay (ex-Marine), cycled and walked the whole 30 miles with him too.  The charity also did a Facebook Christmas challenge – 24 Star Press Ups a day for 24 days leading up to Christmas Eve; they raised over £2500.  They want to show potential funders that they are keen and passionate about what they are trying to achieve.

Mick explains that “we are getting there; we have taken on some new and great trustees along with our previous ones”.  He was struggling to do a lot of the work himself at the beginning; therefore, he took on role specific trustees which include a bookkeeper, a Vet, a previous secretary with another charity, a mental health nurse and a good networker.  They all bring specific skills and will help move the charity forward in the right direction.  We have our first service user waiting in the wind and once the COVID restrictions relax, they look to pair them up with a rescue dog.  They cannot wait to get started! Dogs Trust have agreed to work with the charity after their Vet has completed their animal welfare policy and they have a prominent Fife dog trainer that would love to help too.  Saying all this, we still need the funds to push the charity forward and help more veterans out. We have other veterans interested in getting our help too.

Mick wants to put a shout out to anyone that has cheap/free property out there that they can use for the dog training and the drop-in centre in fife, this would be so much appreciated.  They would need a place with a disabled toilet, a hall/big room, kitchenette facilities and a separate room for the drop-in centre service users. Again, AVBF do not have the funds to pay a copious amount of rent etc for a base for themselves to work from. 

This base will not just be used for training the dogs and for a veterans’ drop-in centre, it will also be used as a training centre for Mick to teach Mental Health First Aid and Canine First Aid to the public for an affordable cost as a way to raise money for the charity.  Mick is an accredited ProTrainings instructor and the charity is a registered ProTrainings training centre.  All volunteers must pass a mental health first aid course prior to being allowed to work with the service users too.  Mick thinks this is especially important because ultimately AVBF is a mental health charity and he knows people get blinded by the dogs and think it is all about them.  Mick explains that “yes, we care about the dogs, but we need to understand that one wrong word to our service user, can send them back in treatment”.  Eventually, when they have enough dog trainers in place, they will open up dog training classes to the general public and again the money will go back into the charity.

Mick states that anyone can get involved, just get in contact with him via their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AVBF2020 , on Twitter https://twitter.com/veteran_friend and they also have website – Assistance Dogs for Veterans | A Veteran’s Best Friend.  They would love to hear from anyone, but they particularly struggle with the marketing of the charity; therefore, anyone with this type of experience would be greatly welcomed.

The website can be used for veterans to register an interest in an assistance dog, the more need the charity can show, the more chance they have of getting funding. Also, they have started a virtual drop-in centre that can be booked via the website too.  “The drop-in centre can be booked by anyone in the UK”, Mick explains.  “The more widespread people know about us the better”, Mick explains. He also explains that “in times like these we need to adapt, people are losing that social connection; therefore, the virtual drop-in centre is a good way of getting guys to talk the best we can right now”.

Mick wants to finally thank all those that have supported him and donated to the charity from its inception; he and the trustees are blown away by all the generous people they have met along the way.

Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AVBF2020
AVBF Website: https://aveteransbestfriend.co.uk/