Therapy dogs helping children overcome trauma in Uganda

Okello Jesus Ojara

GULU- While traditional therapy approaches are effective, incorporating trauma therapy dogs into the healing process can be extremely helpful with the method gaining significant recognition and support in mental health care in Uganda.

Whether caused by a single event or prolonged exposure to distressing situations, trauma according to medical experts can leave lasting scars and it is a problem that affects many, especially children.

Brain behind this…

Heike Rath, is a 55- year old German national, who founded the Light Ray charitable non-governmental organization that has been helping vulnerable children in Northern Uganda since 2010 and the organization employed 98 percent locals of Northern Uganda.

At LightRay Children’s Home in Obiya West, Bardege-Layibi Division in Gulu City, Uganda, Heike Rath has introduced therapy dogs to manage the worrying level of trauma among the vulnerable children at the organization’s orphanage home.

“Three years back, there have been issues of demons, and nightmares among children in the dormitory; you know they were traumatized kids; they were around 12 to 14 years and they screamed at night and had nightmares; so I discussed it with my daughter on the phone during COVID-19 because I got stuck in my apartment by then,”  Rath said.

Rath said that her daughter suggested a therapy dog as a remedy for PTSD healing and this prompted them to take their two puppies to Munster City in Germany for therapy training.

The therapy dogs, all Red Fox Labrador breeds with names Amalia and Noah cost the family Shs 160 million and were brought to the orphanage home in Gulu City in early January this year from Germany.

“Our children’s home accommodates about 54 children comprising of orphans, victims of torture and sexual abuse, neglected and abandoned children, those with chronic ailments, and those from poor families identified by the local community,” Rath said.

According to Rath, therapy dogs will help to heal children who are suffering from trauma because dogs are 400 times more emotional than humans and can easily detect stress.

 “Our vision is that the therapy dogs will work with traumatized children but also with slow learners even stubborn kids in class, and they will sit in classes and calm those kids down because we in Germany, have therapy dogs in school and social areas; these dogs can do a good job for those children and also blind people,” Rath explained.

It takes between six months to one year for a client to get healed through therapy dogs but total healing also depends on the magnitude of the condition.

Charles Obalim, the Veterinary Officer in Gulu City said that dogs are very good at smelling hormones released by the human body especially when they are stressed and that cannot be detected by a human social worker.

Obalim added that when people develop stress, their bodies release hormones that consist of adrenaline and cortisol which can be easily detected by trained dogs like these.

“The initiative of introducing therapy dogs will help the local population in getting healing from trauma and we want this project to multiply because many people in the community are stressed and some are getting mad; we need these therapy dogs in other institutions, even government hospitals,” Obalim said.

Walter Ochora from the Probation Office in Gulu City said that cases of child neglect and abuse in the city are a great concern and revealed that therapy dogs can create a positive change for disadvantaged children.

“We receive between three to four cases of child neglect daily with the bulk of cases arising from domestic violence in homes and I am optimistic that the therapy dogs will impact greatly on the lives of our affected children,” Ochora said.

 Patrick Oola Lumumba, the Mayor of Bardege-Layibi Division in Gulu City appeals to the community to embrace the new initiative and embrace the dogs as their companions instead of planning to hurt them.

According to Mr Oola, the city leadership will work hand in hand with the organization to see that the impact of the therapy dogs is felt in the community and the children.

“We need to embrace this new development as a community and I also ask the organization to make an open door to the community members and sometimes take the dogs outside the orphanage home so that our people also appreciate the work the therapy dogs are doing in our children,” Oola said.

Dr Collins Chua Kisembo, a Psychologist with Youth Leaders for Restoration & Development confirmed that dog therapy is very perfect with children because it is introduced systematically which enables the child to gradually get used to the dog.

“You gradually let the dog get used to the child in a process because children are still growing and they begin to develop that attachment with the dog,” Kisembo said.

According to Dr Kisembo, children in Northern Uganda are passing through trans-generational trauma and dog therapy is the best for them since children are still growing and growing together with the dogs while healing.

“Because if a dog sees a child, the dog will not be wild, but if it sees an adult it may tend to be wild so in helping to heal the PTSD the child has. The dogs help perfectly and most children in Northern Uganda have trans-generational trauma so the dogs help much better and it is more effective in children than in adults,” Kisembo explained.

According to medical experts interacting with a therapy dog for trauma has been shown to release oxytocin, a hormone associated with stress reduction and the physical touch and rhythmic petting of a therapy dog can have a calming effect.

Dr Mark Andrew Muyanga, a qualified medical psychiatrist, revealed that research has suggested that interactions with therapy dogs can help reduce symptoms of PTSD by providing emotional support, promoting relaxation and fostering a sense of safety and trust within a child.

“For children especially those who have experienced trauma, the presence of a therapy dog can create a comforting and non-judgmental environment where they feel encouraged to express their feelings and emotions which is key in therapy and in this case key in helping the child resolve the PTSD they may be experiencing,” Dr Muyanga said.

Dr Muyanga explained that therapy dogs can assist in the grounding technique which can help to offer a tangible source of comfort and companionship with the bond between the child and the dog serving as a therapy relationship facilitating the healing process over time and also helping a child develop resilience.

He further said that it is very crucial to note that while dog therapy has promised a complementary intervention for PTSD, it is not a stand-alone solution and works best when integrated into more comprehensive treatment plans which include more major forms of psychotherapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy, medical and evidenced-based interventions which tailored to the individual needs of the child.

“Dog therapy can be a valuable adjective approach in the management of PTSD, and it is important for you to realize that its effectiveness varies from person to person therefore, there is a lot of research still needed to be done; but it is not a solution to all forms of PTSD in all children; it is an adjective therapy thus not stand alone and when use with other forms of therapy, it can help to improve PTSD among children,” Dr Muyanga said.

Northern Uganda is still recovering from more than twenty years of insurgency that claims tens of thousands and displaces millions of people with long-lasting effects of post-traumatic stress disorders.

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