A new therapy for children coping with the trauma of war in Ukraine uses dogs to help them

War-affected and traumatized children pose for a photo with an American pit bull terrier “Bice” at the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

Bice is an American Pit Bull Terrier with an important and sensitive job in the Ukraine: comfort children traumatized by the Russian war. The 8-year-old gray dog ​​arrived at a rehabilitation center on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital on time this week, ready to begin his duties.

While Bice waited in a corridor, inside what looked like a classroom with paintings and some books, a dozen children sat around a table listening to Oksana Sliepora, a psychologist.

“Who’s got a dog?” he asked, and several hands went up at once as the space was filled with shouts of “Me, me, me!”

A young man said that his dog was called Stitch; “Tank”, said another boy, adding that he has a total of five, but he forgot all his names. Everyone laughed.

The seven girls and nine boys, ranging in age from 2 years old to a young woman of 18 years old, are seen at first as students enjoying the class. But they have particular stories: some witnessed Russian soldiers invading their hometowns and beating their relatives. Some are sons, daughters, brothers or sisters of soldiers who are on the front lines, or were killed on them.

They meet at the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation, a state-run community center where people can get help coping with traumatic experiences after Russia‘s invasion in February. The staff provide regular psychological therapy to anyone who has been affected in any way by the war.

therapy dogs
Children traumatized by war play with an American pit bull terrier “Bice” at the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

In the past they have worked with horses, but now they support another four-legged friend: canine therapy.

Located in Boyarka, a suburb about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Kiev, the center was established in 2000 as part of an effort to provide psychological support to people affected, directly or indirectly, by the explosion at the nuclear plant. of Chernobyl in 1986.

Now the focus is on people affected by the war. These days, when some areas are without power after Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, the two-story building is one of the few places with light and heat.

With the children gathered, some wearing blue or red Christmas hats, Sliepora cautiously asked if they wanted to meet anyone. Yes, they did, was the reply. The door opened. The children’s faces glowed. They smiled. And in came Bice, the tail-wagging therapist.

Darina Kokozei, the dog’s owner and caretaker, asked the children to go one by one to ask her to do a trick or two. He sat down. He rose up on his hind legs. He extended a paw or turned around. Then a group hug, followed by some treats for him.

For more than 30 minutes, Bice let everyone touch and hug him, never barking. It was as if nothing else mattered at that moment, as if there was nothing to worry about, such as a war raging in his country.

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A boy poses for a photo with an American pit bull terrier “Bice” at the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka, near Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

This is the first time that Sliepora has worked with a dog as part of his therapies. But, she said, “I read a lot of literature that says that working with dogs, with four-legged rehabilitators, helps children reduce stress, increase resistance to stress and reduce anxiety.”

The kids didn’t seem stressed, but of course the reality is still there. She observed how some children are frightened by loud noises, such as someone closing a window or hearing the sound of an airplane. Some drop to the ground or start asking if there is a bomb shelter nearby.

Among the children were a brother and sister from Kupyansk, a city in the eastern Kharkiv region, who witnessed how Russian soldiers stormed their home with machine guns, grabbed their grandfather, put a bag over his head and beat him, said Sliepora. “Every child is psychologically traumatized in different ways,” he said.

The mothers of some of the children sat along one wall for most of the time, watching and listening from a distance. When Bice came, some took photos of their children.

Lesya Kucherenko was here with her 9-year-old son, Maxim. She said she can’t stop thinking about the war and what could happen to her eldest son, a 19-year-old paratrooper fighting in the town of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, one of the most active fronts these days. . Maxim smiled as he played with Bice, but he was always watching her mother, turning his head to look at her from time to time.

therapy dogs
Children traumatized by war draw pictures at the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

Kucherenko said she sometimes breaks down in tears when she thinks of her soldier son. Just before this session, she received a call from him. He told her that she was fine, and just remembering that, she started crying. The next second, Maxim was there, asking why.

As for the comforting dog, what is the best message that Bice offers to children?

The owner Kokozei needs to think for just a couple of seconds and answers: “Freedom”.

“Freedom from problems and happiness”, Add.

With information from AP

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