Therapy dog

Why and how therapy dogs can manage post-traumatic stress disorder in children

(Last Updated On: 5 February 2024)

Gulu | Whether caused by a single event or prolonged exposure to distressing situations, trauma can leave lasting scars and it is a problem that affects more of us, especially children, than we would like to think.

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

Dr Mark Andrew Muyanga, a qualified medical psychiatrist, said 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 dog therapy can assist in the grounding technique, offering a tangible source of comfort and companionship with the bond between the child and the dog and that it facilitates the healing process over time. Another positive result is that it helps 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 you need to realise that its effectiveness varies from person to person and therefore, there is a lot of research still needed to be done about.

“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 used with other forms of therapy, it can help to improve PTSD among children,” Dr Muyanga said.

Dr Collins Chua Kisembo, a Psychologist with Youth Leaders for Restoration & Development, said 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 told tndNews.

The medical experts confirmed that 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.

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

“Three years back, there have been issues of demons and nightmares among children in the dormitory; you know they were traumatised 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 told tndNews.

Rath added 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 shs160 million and were brought to the orphanage home in Gulu City in early January (2024) 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.

The therapy dogs, Rath said, will help to heal the 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 traumatised 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 further said that when people develop stress, their bodies release hormones that consist of adrenaline and cortisol which can be easily detected by trained dogs.

“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 really 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 Oola, the city leadership will work hand in hand with the organisation 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 organisation 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.

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