9 June 2022 – The war in Ukraine continues to cause immense suffering for millions of people, not least those at the frontlines returning injured or mentally traumatised from the combat zone and in need of special medical care both mentally and physically.
Global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS has been offering Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) in Ukraine since 2018, a programme for which former stray dogs are selected, trained and certified by experts to become therapy dogs. It was originally created to change the way people perceive and treat stray animals. Now therapy dog Busia is also providing emotional support and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) prevention to servicemen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine who received injuries and are currently in the hospital in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine.
Psychologists note that the effects of other methods of rehabilitation is faster and more visible in those veterans who also work with dog therapists. Therefore, the AAI experts from FOUR PAWS, who have been visiting displaced people from the east of the country in Vinnytsia since the beginning of the war, decided to support injured soldiers. The dog acts as a guide between the psychologist and the patient, creating a trusting, relaxing atmosphere. When patients feel safe with the dog, they open up.
“The main task of our work is to support and assist with the rehabilitation of the patients after they were exposed to hostilities, rescue operations, and got injured in order to prevent PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is already a psychiatric illness. If patients want to communicate but find it hard to do, it is in many cases easier with a dog than a human. Often we come to the hospital and notice that a person who hasn't talked to anyone starts interacting with the dog after a short time,”
says Viktoriia Habryk, the Practical Psychologist at FOUR PAWS who works with Busia and the soldiers.
The list of conditions for which canine therapy can be effective includes stress, depression, crises, aggression, and hyperactivity. Interaction with the dog helps with social development, relieves anxiety, calms and relaxes.
Busia’s journey from stray dog to canine therapy dog
After the success of Lisa, Ukraine's first former stray AAI dog who has since retired, the FOUR PAWS team in Ukraine was ready to rescue and train another dog for the project. They found what they were looking for in Busia, a former stray dog from Lviv who passed all tests with flying colours and became the second former stray dog in Ukraine to participate in AAI.
“Busia performs her therapist tasks professionally and by doing so she provides valuable therapeutic support. In our AAI programme, Busia was specially trained to respond to human reactions and very clearly identifies people who are tense, stressed or traumatised. She can bring a person out of such a state by licking their hands or touching them with her paw, which invites them to interact. The patients begin to pet her, hug her, and gradually calm down. Busia does not judge or evaluate, she gives unconditional love and comfort,” says Habryk.
The FOUR PAWS AAI programme
“With AAI we want to change attitudes and behaviours towards stray animals, by showing that they can add value to the society and improve the wellbeing of the community. We also want to show that stray dogs can make good pets, thus we encourage local shelter adoption,” says James Pirnay, who is responsible for Community Engagement at FOUR PAWS.
FOUR PAWS has developed its own Quality Standards for AAI to monitor the quality of all involved activities, establish the best possible quality of life for the former stray dogs in its care, and operate the programme as effectively and efficiently as possible. First, dogs suitable for the task are selected and trained by using welfare-based methods like positive reinforcement. After approximately twelve months of preparation and training, the dog’s health, temperament and behaviour is evaluated.
“Dogs that are ready for the job stay calm in all situations. For example, a wheelchair or crutches are not irritating for the dog. It is also important that the dog wants to work with strangers and is gentle, easily approachable, and does not show any signs of aggression. It should never be a burden for the dog,” says Pirnay.
FOUR PAWS runs AAI programmes in Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania.
FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them.
Founded in 1988 in Vienna by Heli Dungler and friends, the organisation advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. The sustainable campaigns and projects of FOUR PAWS focus on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, animals in fashion, farm animals, and wild animals – such as bears, big cats, and orangutans – kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones.
With offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, the USA, and Vietnam as well as sanctuaries for rescued animals in eleven countries, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term solutions. www.four-paws.org.au