A dog that will teach the man to heal: Humboldt survivor meets his new teammate

A survivor of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash met his newest teammate on Friday.

His name is Chase, he likes to hug — and he’s a service dog.

The pair met for the first time in Edmonton on Friday, capping nearly a year of training for Chase and months of healing for Graysen Cameron.

“It means everything to me,” Cameron said as he got acquainted with the affectionate one-year-old Labrador retriever.

The Cameron family drove to Edmonton from their home in Olds, Alta. Chase made the trip here from Winnipeg, accompanied by trainer George Leonard.

The connection between the two was instant, with Chase burrowing his face into Cameron’s chest when he walked into the room at the hotel. After the introductory snuggles, Chase eventually settled into a space by the 19-year-old’s feet.

“It’ll be amazing to have someone around all the time,” Cameron said. “If I’m going through hard times or anything like that, he’ll be right by my side.” 

Graysen Cameron and service dog, Chase, connected instantly. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Cameron was one of 13 survivors of the devastating crash on April 6. A tractor-trailer collided with the team bus north of Tisdale, Sask., killing 16 staff, players and volunteers.

Pam Cameron, Graysen’s mother, said Friday’s meeting with Chase was like a light after a long and heavy fog. It was an assurance that her son will have a companion as he deals with the post-traumatic stress related to the crash.

“It really means the world. It means a future for Graysen,” she said.

“As a mother, I know he’s going to be 100 per cent taken care of, and he’s never alone. That’s a key for me.”

Pam Cameron looks on as her son, Graysen, and his new service dog get acquainted for the first time in Edmonton on Friday. (Peter Evans/CBC)

The idea came to her while Graysen was recovering in hospital alongside three other teammates just days after the tragedy. The room lit up when a group of therapy dogs paid a visit, she said.  

“It changed everything about being in that room with them. It was a bright light,” she said.

Soon after, the family got in touch with MSAR Elite Service Dogs in Manitoba, which offered to donate three service dogs to Graysen and two other survivors of the crash.

The family will spend two days in Edmonton, giving the soon-to-be inseparable team a chance to get to know each other.

“Right now, this is huge. This is just the beginning,” said Leonard, a certified master dog trainer.

Certified master dog trainer George Leonard has been working with Chase for nearly a year ahead of Friday’s introductions. (Peter Evans/CBC)

It’s the beginning in more ways than one.

At the end of the weekend, Leonard and Chase will head back to Winnipeg to continue the dog’s months-long journey toward getting certified. Cameron will be part of that training when he joins Chase in Winnipeg for two weeks later this year.

“I’d like to go home and take him now, but I realize that he needs some time still and work out the training he has still left,” Cameron said.

In the meantime, Cameron will return to Red Deer, where he’s beginning his first season as an assistant coach for the triple-A Red Deer Optimist Chiefs hockey team.

It’s not the side of the bench he’s used to but it’s a hard-earned opportunity to be back around the game he loves.

“It’s great to be around a team all the time and around hockey. It’s just nice to see the other side of it,” he said, the team’s crest emblazoned on his sweater.

The one-year-old pup still needs more training before he can become a certified service dog. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Pam Cameron moved her son to Red Deer earlier in the week, a transition made all the more difficult given what the family has endured over the past six months. She takes comfort knowing her son will have soon have a loyal companion.

“There’s nothing like a boy and his dog, and this case, a boy and his teammate,” she said. “Whether it’s a team of two or a team of 21, it’s all the same. Having a teammate.”

Graysen Cameron said Friday’s meeting was a significant mark on his road to healing.

“It’s just another step in the journey, I think, yeah. Getting used to that new normal is just part of that puzzle.”

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