Photo courtesy Maryna Pugachova

They say a dog is man’s best friend, but in conflict-hit Donetsk Oblast, dogs are also helping women and children recover from the traumas of the armed conflict in the east of the country.

Through the use of “canistherapy” ­– an approach to psychotherapy that arose in the 1960s in the United States ­– a group of civil activists has recruited friendly pups to treat children badly affected by the ongoing conflict in the area.

Lawyer Maryna Pugachova, a resident of Mariupol, is the head of the Beregynia Mariupol Women's Association ­– the civil society organization that adopted the novel approach. According to her, one of the group’s most startling successes occurred when six-year-old Nastia, a girl from a village close to the “contact line” was introduced to a canine companion.

Nastia is from a large family in a village with high unemployment, and among all of their other problems, their house recently suffered a direct hit by a shell. A psychologist of the Beregynia Mariupol Women's Association is now actively working to treat psychological trauma to the family’s child sisters.

Psychologists from the local social services suspected that Nastia, the youngest child in the family, was autistic. At the same time, the eldest sister, Inna, is having problems graduating from school.

One of the main symptoms of autism is when children want to be alone – they don’t want to be disturbed and might become very uncomfortable if they have to focus on some kind of activity, such as painting, or dancing, or going for a walk.

But bureau psychologist Kateryna was convinced that the local psychologists’ diagnosis was wrong. And she, as someone who has been working in the areas along the “contact line” since 2015, is well aware of the impact of psychological stress on a child.

Post-traumatic stress in these children causes a range of physiological, emotional, cognitive and behavioural changes. Kateryna is convinced that life under fire almost from birth, hiding in a cellar, when the summer kitchen burns in the yard, the mother's injuries – all of this has affected the vulnerable child Nastia’s psyche.

So the psychologist decided to involve volunteers from partner organizations and try canistherapy treatment for Nastia. The positive effects were immediate.

After the first canistherapy session Nastia began to open up. The little “quiet one” was soon unrecognizable. After the second session, she came to the team with a small puppy that she had picked up on the street and stated that she wanted “to study him like a psychologist."

The puppy was a ticket to happiness for the family. The eldest sister was extremely impressed by the changes in Nastia, which challenged her own lack of faith in the future. Inna has now applied to several higher educational institutions and plans to become a psychologist, dreaming of working as a canistherapist in the future.

Nastia is now training her puppy Lucky, and also dreams of becoming a cynologist – an expert in dogs.

And the mother of the family, after a long search, has recently found a way of earning some money – sewing custom-made clothes for dogs. She sews the clothes with love, as dogs have changed the life of her family for the better.

According to Pugachova, her team has decided to continue using canistherapy as one of the tools of their daily work, given the positive results from the rehabilitation of children with psychological trauma.

The network of Citizen Advice Bureaus to which Beregynia Mariupol Women's Association belongs was created as part of the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme, which is being implemented by four United Nations agencies: The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The Programme is supported by ten international partners: the European Union, the European Investment Bank and the governments of Canada, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland.

Photo courtesy Anzhelika Drotianko
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