Bice is an American Pit Bull Terrier with an important and delicate job in the Ukraine: comforting children traumatized by the war started by Russia. The playful gray 8-year-old dog arrived at a rehabilitation center on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital 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?” she asked, and several hands went up at once as the space was filled with shouts of “Me, me, me!”
Staff provide psychological therapy to anyone who has been affected
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. They all laughed. The seven girls and nine boys, ranging in age from a 2-year-old to an 18-year-old young woman, look like 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 that began in February.
The staff provide psychological therapy to anyone who has been affected in any way by the war. 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 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 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion. Now it focuses on people affected by the war.
In the past they have worked with horses and now they have started a canine therapy
In 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 answer.
Then the door opened. The children’s faces lit up and smiled. And in came Bice, the tail-wagging therapist. Darina Korozei, the dog’s owner and caretaker, asked the children to go one by one and 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, they gave each other a group hug and rewarded him with some delicacies.
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. This is the first time that Sliepora has worked with a dog as part of her therapy.
She explained that she had 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 reality is still out there. She observed how some children are afraid of loud noises, such as when someone closes a window or when they hear the sound of an airplane.
This is the first time that Sliepora has worked with a dog as part of his therapies.
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 remained almost the entire time sitting on one of the walls, 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 his mother, turning his head to look at her from time to time. Kucherenko said that he sometimes bursts into tears when she thinks of her soldier’s son. Just before this session, he received a call. He told her that she was fine, and just remembering that, she started crying. The second Maxim was there, asking why.
“See? He’s comforting me, not me,” his mother said. As for the dog, what’s the best message Bice brings to children? The owner Korozei needs to think for just a couple of seconds to answer: “Freedom.” “Freedom without problems and happiness,” he adds.