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Orphanage opts for Therapy Dogs to Fight Child Trauma :: Uganda Radionetwork
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Orphanage opts for Therapy Dogs to Fight Child Trauma

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Charles Obalim, a Veterinary Officer in Gulu City explains that dogs are excellent at smelling hormones released by the human body when they are stressed, which can’t be sensed by human beings.
LightRay Uganda Director Heike Rath addresses stakeholders during the handover of two therapy dogs at LightRay Childrens home over the weekend.

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An orphanage in Gulu City has introduced therapy dogs to aid in the psycho-social recovery of children suffering from trauma. Lightray Uganda, a non-governmental organization introduced two dogs, Red Fox Labrador breeds specially trained for trauma healing at the children’s home in Bardege-Layibi Division in Gulu city about a week ago.

Heike Rath, the Director of Lightray Uganda noted that the introduction of the therapy dogs was in response to cases of trauma registered among children at the orphanage. The children’s home started in 2017 currently accommodates 54 children comprising orphans, abandoned children, victims of domestic violence, war, and sexual abuse, and those suffering from chronic ailments.

According to Rath, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she shared the experiences of children suffering from trauma with her daughter in Germany who recommended therapy dogs as a remedy for their challenges. She said the children were experiencing demonic attacks, nightmares, and anxiety owing to the environment they lived in or the violent experiences they passed through.

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The therapy dogs according to Rath, were trained for two years in various dog schools, and homes in Münster City in Germany before being handed to social workers in Gulu City. Rath says that therapy dogs are more emotional than human beings and are 400 times better at detecting trauma in children before a human being can understand.

Already two social workers at the children’s home are undergoing training in handling the dogs for trauma counseling among the traumatized children and also slow learners in school.

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According to Rath, it takes between six months to one year for a traumatized child to recover fully using the therapy dogs but noted that it depends on the severity of the trauma for successful recovery.

How do the dogs detect stress? Charles Obalim, a Veterinary Officer in Gulu City explains that dogs are excellent at smelling hormones released by the human body when they are stressed which can’t be sensed by human beings. Obalim said when a person develops stress, their body releases certain hormones that consist of adrenaline and cortisol which can be picked up by a trained therapy dog.  

He said while there are already some strives toward addressing trauma among disadvantaged children, therapy dogs come with the advantage of boosting self-esteem among the children. Obalim encouraged other children's homes and government health facilities to introduce therapy dogs.

How will dogs help the children? Mike Acaye, a social worker and warden at LightRay Children’s Home says the therapy dogs, will be spending time in the children’s dormitories at night to help in detecting trauma cases. He says the therapy dogs will also once in a while be taken to the children’s school to interact with learners who are slow and those deemed stubborn. 

According to Acaye, once the dogs detect a child with trauma symptoms, counselors will undertake further assessment to understand whether the case is mild or severe. “We have counselors from one of the rehabilitation facilities in Gulu whom we are working with. If a child has been detected by the dogs and found to be having severe trauma, our counselors will refer them to recommended health facilities for better management," said Acaye.

A 2022 study report published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE reveals that dogs can detect with an accuracy of 93.75% psychological stress responses produce changes in human breath and sweat. This isn’t the first time therapy dogs have been used in the psycho-social recovery of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the Acholi Sub-region.

Three years ago, the Big Fix Uganda, an animal welfare organization launched the Comfort Dog project to provide therapeutic support to the victims of the two decades of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war. Cases of depression have been reportedly on the rise in the Sub-region that still suffers from the brunt of the brutal war resulting in high mental illnesses and suicide rates.

According to reports released by health officials at Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, at least 8,000 outpatients and 450 inpatient admissions of patients with severe forms of mental illness with mood disorders were registered in 2021 alone. The majority of the cases were a result of substance abuse and depression.