“I was in a coma for a while, which wasn't very nice,” says Paul Wilkie. He reflects for a moment, then grins, enjoying the absurdity. “Not that I knew if it was nice or no, ’cause I was in a coma...”

That he can smile about it is perhaps surprising: Wilkie was in the coma because he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – after 22 years in the Royal Engineers. That he’s here at all, he says, is down to a bouncy, loyal, handsome Springer Spaniel called Irma.

She was the first Bravehound supplied by a small charity of that name based at Erskine, on the Clyde west of Renfrew. It provides dogs for people such as Wilkie who have suffered mental torment as a result of service in the armed forces.

Even Fiona MacDonald, the charity's founder, admits she does not know quite how the dogs help, but Wilkie sums it up when he says: “I tried to commit suicide twice before: I won’t do that with Irma.”

MacDonald is an opera singer by profession, and established a charity called Glenart as a channel for arts projects to raise cash to help veterans. She noticed veterans she met seemed to fare better if they had dogs, if only because if gave them a reason to get up in the morning, and started Bravehound as an offshoot project.

The idea took off, and two years ago Bravehound became the focus of her work. It’s supplied dogs to a dozen men, with a dozen more under training. Other veterans have brought their own dogs for the training and support Bravehound can give.

On a walk in the woods near the former garden centre where the charity is based, Irma chases balls and splashes in puddles while Wilkie explains his problems. They stem from stresses suffered in amphibious combat and bomb disposal in conflicts all over the world.

PTSD ruined his marriage, and after a spell living rough in the countryside in 2014 he accepted help from forces charity SSAFA and was found a cottage in Guildtown near Perth. He got Irma from the fledgling charity but was then diagnosed with bowel conditions Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.

“This was in 2016, and I asked doctors why I had got it. They said it’s because you have PTSD. It’s down to stress.”

He needed surgery, had his large bowel removed and then suffered sepsis, which led to the coma. Time spent on a respirator damaged his lungs, and the sepsis scarred his body and wasted his muscles. “When I came out the coma I had major issues getting my fitness back and they said it would take over two years because the sepsis has wrecked my body,” he says. That process is only part-way through, and Wilkie still has PTSD and has suffered anxiety attacks, nightmares, flashbacks and severe depression.

But defiance, a sense of irony and strength of spirit are there when he describes his life: “I live alone with Irma, and my pet duck called North, who thinks Irma is its mother. Who’d have ever thought I’d have a pet duck? I get a lot of support but the best support isn't a psychologist or a psychiatrist, it’s Irma.

“She's trained to help with my PTSD, she’s a companion, she reads me like a book, she knows when I am sad, she knows when I need her support, she’s an amazing dog. Bravehound and Irma have changed my life.”

Like guide dogs for the blind the charity sends puppies – many of them donated – to a puppy walker, and at around a year old they go to veterans. The charity trains them in the basics, such as coming when they’re called, and they can be trained to help their human partner with specific symptoms of PTSD. If a veteran is nervous in crowds, for example, the dog can be taught to “block” – stand in front of the veteran to clear a space.

MacDonald is working on raising the level of training to that of assistance dogs, like guide dogs. If they become recognised as such they’ll get the right to go everywhere with their partner.

One thing the dogs don’t have to be trained in, however, is one of the most remarkable aspects of the help they give.

David Green served eight-and-a-half years with the Royal Artillery, including tours of duty to the former Yugoslavia back in the 1990s. He began suffering PTSD symptoms after he left the army in 2001, with depression, stress and night terrors.

The nightmares can leave him exhausted the next day, but his year-old Bravehound Springer Spaniel Rosie instinctively knows how to help.

Green explained: “She will not so much give me early warnings of nightmares but she’ll wake me up before I have them. Before they even develop in my mind Rosie will crawl up the bed and rest her head and her front paws on my chest before any nightmares kick in.

“My partner has watched the dog come up and do this when I am just starting to stir. If the nightmare does start to develop she will put her full body across my chest, and lick my face or lick my hand. That’s enough to wake me up and bring me out of it before I have the attack.

“The longer I have her the quicker she has become at responding to the night terrors.

“It’s now two months since I last had one, and because I have a good night’s sleep and I am rested, in the morning everything else is a lot easier to deal with, so I can handle the normal day-to-day stresses of life.”

It seems like remarkable foresight from the bouncy dog running around the garden centre in the happy-to-be alive way Springer Spaniels do, but Green says the dog is responding to tiny amounts of stress hormones in his sweat: “The cortisol and adrenaline levels in my body will change when I am about to have a nightmare. Rosie will pick up on those elevated levels and that’s her sign telling her ‘I’ve got to go and wake dad up, he’s getting upset.’ “Dogs are very receptive to human emotions. They will pick up on whether someone is happy or sad.”

Even if he is get a waking anxiety attack Rosie will jump on his knee and rest her head on his shoulder. “A lot of people underestimate the therapy, the help that dogs can give,” he adds.

If there is a scientific explanation for that aspect of the dogs’ effect, MacDonald says much of the overall benefit is still a mystery: “It’s clear the dogs are providing a focus, but there is something magical going on too, as far as I am concerned,” she says.

Most of the dogs are handsome Springers or Springer-Cocker Spaniel crosses, Sprockers, and she adds: “One of the veterans had applied for a dog but didn’t expect to get one because he didn’t feel that he deserved such a beautiful dog. Now he feels so proud of his dog and it makes him feel like a normal person.”

That normality is what Wilkie and the other men I speak to crave.

When Herald photographer Kirsty Anderson turns up at a Bravehound event to snap the dogs and their partners at play, Wilkie is missing. His daughter is there in his stead with Irma, and MacDonald says he has been back in hospital.

One thing is for sure: his affection for Irma will help motivate him to get well and get back out to look after her. Though life is still tough for the veterans, their dogs make a small, vital difference.

Mick McConnell

“I was a Royal Air Force Police dog-handler and I served in Afghanistan on Herrick 14 in 2011. I was an arms explosive search handler attached to 42 Commando Lima Company.

“Unfortunately my search dog missed the IED and I stood on it. It was a partial detonation that shattered my left heel. After 20 months recovery I opted for a lower leg amputation, so on April 12, 2013 I had my amputation, and I have never looked back.”

This is all delivered matter of factly by the 44-year-old former Corporal McConnell as if he is reporting to his commanding officer. To ask him more feels unfair. He has done his duty to the conversation and got the hard story out. But ask what it actually felt like, and you start to see the real man: tough, brave, scared, loyal to his mates; of course, he does look back, on the enormity of the event, and on his feelings of guilt.

The day he was injured, the first warning sign was children running away from the patrol. “Usually all the children are up around you asking for sweets and pens and stuff, so for them to be running away, I knew something was wrong,” he says. “I stepped left and there was just a big bang and a cloud of smoke. I fell on my back and the Marine beside me patted me down straight away and said don’t worry it’s all still there. I was lucky it didn’t blow my leg off.

“It was terrifying but there was strangely lots of relief as well ... terrifying because you don’t know how injured you are on the ground, and the Marines are giving your first aid, but relief as well because I was the only one injured on that patrol so my dog missing the IED didn’t cause anyone else to be injured.”

The device only detonated partially because it was wet – “The insurgents had had to swim across a canal with it” – and that saved his life.

McConnell, from Elgin, was discharged in 2015 having been helped with rehabilitation by the RAF, but still felt to blame during his recovery because the whole patrol could have been injured by his dog’s mistake. He also felt guilt for having lost his career.

But dogs have brought him back to a near-normal life. His search dog Memphis retired with him, and at first gave him a reason to get up of a morning, but Memphis died in 2016.

He said he didn’t want another dog but McConnells’s wife Lorna realised he needed help with the psychological effects of his service and injury. She had heard about Bravehound through her work for Poppy Scotland, and as a result McConnell was already helping the dog charity. Lorna McConnell got together with Bravehound founder Fiona MacDonald and they tricked him into looking after Sasha, a Springer-Cocker Spaniel cross or Sprocker.

“They said she needed looking after for a couple of weeks before he went to another veteran, but as soon as I met her I thought: ‘They’re not getting her back!’

“Sasha’s so loving, she just lies in my arms like a baby but she also needs a lot of exercise so that makes me get out, long walks on the beach or in the woods.

“She’s beautiful, she makes me smile and make me laugh. She gets me up and gets me out, and makes sunshine on my life.”

Andy McFall

Andy McFall’s biggest fear is becoming aggressive: his 13 years’ Army service, with four tours of duty to Afghanistan and Iraq, has left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The way he describes his symptoms is almost comical: “It’s like being slightly annoyed all the time, as if you know someone has left a plate on the worktop instead of washing it or putting it the dishwasher.”

But small-scale irritation most people would shrug off can become more dangerous. McFall, 36, from Carluke, has grabbed strangers, threatened to put people in hospital and been barred from shops for aggressive behaviour. He has attacked his partner Sarah Anderson while still asleep, punching her and trying to strangle her.

“We ended up sleeping in separate rooms because I was afraid I would hurt her,” he says. “But now we have Riley we don’t have to worry about that.”

Riley is a Weimeraner, a German gun-dog bigger than the spaniels supplied by Bravehound, and McFall planned it that way: He’s 6ft 2in and wanted a dog that could physically block him, jump up with paws on his chest, if he began to seem violent.

McFall was hoping Bravehound could get him a suitable dog, but when a friend’s Weimeraner had a litter of pups he took one of those on and Bravehound agreed to train Riley.

At eight months old he already knows to come between McFall and Anderson if the ex-soldier begins to move around at night.

He will move on to more complex tasks such as disobedience training: to hold his partner back, for instance, if McFall makes to head into the road when it’s not safe to cross, as he has done before when having “an episode”.

McFall was in the Adjutant General’s Corps, as a human resources specialist: an admin guy.

But while his main job was sorting his colleagues’ pay and paperwork problems, he would carry out guard duty and armed patrols with whatever unit he was attached to on four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the terrifying moments was taking refuge under a table as insurgent mortar fire rained down on the military headquarters in Iraq, with just a tent roof over his head, the massive Phalanx defensive guns adding to the commotion.

Sent out to forward operating bases, the horrors of war came closer. Four colleagues were killed by a child sent into their midst wearing an explosive device. Cleaning blood out of vehicles in which colleagues had been shot, coming under fire, all took its toll.

“In the army you rely on the person who is right next to you to protect your back ... You form a really close bond, and I think it’s just the constant loss of those people.

“On every single operational tour I lost friends.”

The impact of army life broke up McFall’s marriage – he has a daughter living with his ex-wife in Germany – but he met Anderson four years ago and she is now expecting his second child.

The illness currently stops McFall from working, and the psychological problems of PTSD will never be cured: “It’s not like you have a ‘reboot to factory settings’ on the human brain,” he jokes, but he says Riley is a huge help.

“Before I had Riley I never went out, because I was afraid of doing something stupid,” he says.

Now he has to walk the dog, and that helps him interact with people. “It took me three hours to get to two shops in Motherwell, because everyone wanted to pet him.

“That’s good for me because they are focussing on him and so am I, taking my mind away from everything else.”