In northern Uganda, therapy dogs are helping the survivors of war cope with their trauma

In northern Uganda, therapy dogs are helping the survivors of war cope with their trauma

Photographed on World Animal Day, which falls on 4 October, guardians and their dogs line up in the compound of the Comfort Dog Project, in Gulu, northern Uganda.

(Evelyn Lirri )

Lucy Adoch was 13 when, along with her three brothers, she was abducted by rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the northern Ugandan district of Gulu. The siblings were forced to join other abducted children to carry food that the rebels had looted from the surrounding villages to take back to their base in Sudan. “The journey was long and tedious. Our legs were swollen along the way and it took us several days before we crossed into Sudan,” Lucy, now 39, remembers.

In Sudan, she was forced to marry a rebel commander, a man who already had several wives – all as young as Lucy, all abductees. She suffered terrible sexual violence and witnessed other children being killed as they made their way from Uganda to Sudan, and as well as during her stay in the rebel camps. “The commanders would randomly pick on us to kill those who were too tired to continue walking. They feared that if we left them alive, they could act as informers to the government soldiers. I saw several children get killed this way,” Lucy tells Equal Times.

Lucy was given a gun, taught how to shoot and made the head of a small fighting unit that occasionally went into nearby villages to loot homes for food. Then one day in 1998, five years after her abduction, she managed to escape and return home.

Although her years in captivity were difficult, nothing prepared Lucy for what she would face when she returned home. In her absence, some of Lucy’s family members were murdered when the LRA attacked and killed about 300 people in one bloody night in her village of Atiak. Lucy also struggled to reintegrate into her community: some people blamed returnees like her for the killings that took place as well as for the abduction of their children.

“I had flashbacks of what happened to me in the bush, the children I saw being hacked to death. But back home where I thought I could find peace, I was rejected. No one wanted to be with me. They called those of us who were taken to the bush ‘murderers’”.

For most of the period after her return, Lucy who is now married with three children, lived a lonely life. She eventually moved from Atiak to Gulu Town, which is about 68 kilometres away. She never told anyone about her past.

Then everything changed when a dog named Sadik came into her life in December 2014. “Sadik gives me company when I have no one to talk to. In fact, over the years, we have become very good friends to each other. We play all the time. Even my children love him,” she says.

Comfort dogs

Sadik is a therapy dog, and one of many that is changing the lives of war survivors in northern Uganda, a region slowly recovering from two decades of civil war between the rebels of the LRA and the government of Uganda. The LRA, led by Joseph Kony was notorious for killing, maiming civilians and abducting women and children for use as fighters and sex slaves. During the conflict, an estimated 100,000 people were killed while it has been estimated that 30,000 children were forcefully abducted and recruited to fight for the rebels.

Lucy acquired Sadik through the Comfort Dog Project, an initiative that uses the power of animal-assisted therapy to offer companionship and comfort to survivors of the conflict in the region. It was started by Francis Oloya Okello, also a victim of the war, who was blinded by a landmine while preparing the soil in his garden. Because he lost his sight, it became difficult for Francis to navigate the premises of the boarding school he attended, especially at night. He often relied on the kindness of fellow students, but sometimes they did not want to be bothered. Francis became depressed.

Then one night, two stray dogs started following him. Francis befriended the dogs and named them Happy and Rachel; they ended up becoming his daily companions and guides.

“The feeling of helplessness and hopelessness was reduced because of those dogs,” says 30-year-old Francis.

“It was Happy and Rachel who inspired me to come up with the idea of integrating the healing powers of dogs to offer comfort to war trauma survivors,” adds Francis, who graduated with a degree in community psychology from Makerere University in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

The project officially started in January 2015 with 12 beneficiaries. Today there are 41 people being helped by therapy dogs. Community leaders identify potential beneficiaries, or ‘guardians’, through sensitisation meetings. The guardians are then paired with dogs, that are usually strays of all breeds that have been washed, vaccinated and fed. Together, the dogs and the guardians undergo training on everything from how to bond to how the guardians should care for their new four-legged friends.

“At the end of every year, we do a post-training assessment and we find that people who never used to talk have started socialising well, because they have been talking with their dogs,” says Francis on the success of the programme.

Man’s best friend

Although the war ended a decade ago, many people in northern Uganda continue to live with mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. According to a study conducted seven years after the end of the war, northern Uganda had high rates of PTSD and depression amongst the general population. The study also found that women were twice as likely to show symptoms of PTSD and depression compared to men. The problem was also exacerbated by the lack of awareness around mental health issues, stigma and a lack of access to treatment services.

In Uganda and indeed, across Africa, the Comfort Dog Project is unique; it is the first initiative of its kind to use dogs as a form of therapy for survivors trying to heal from the trauma of war. Culturally, dogs in Africa tend to be used for hunting or to keep property secure. Very few people keep dogs as pets, and it is even more uncommon to find people creating strong friendships and speaking with dogs the way the beneficiaries of the Comfort Dog Project do. And so, when Francis first introduced the concept, many people found it strange, including some of those who are now benefiting from it.

In the western world, animal-assisted therapy is fairly widespread, and some studies have shown that having a close bond with dogs helps reduce certain mental disorders amongst people who have experienced traumatic experiences.

Meg Daley Olmert, a researcher who has written on the psychological benefits of being around animals, says that since time immemorial, animals and humans have enjoyed a mutual relationship.

“Dogs and humans have very similar social brain networks, which is why we say the dog is our best friend. We have much in common,” she says. In her book titled, Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, Olmert – who is the director of research at the Warrior Canine Connection in the United States and who is also an advisor on the Comfort Dog Project in Uganda – says that bonding with dogs has been found to have positive biological effects such as increasing levels of the hormone oxytocin, the so-called ‘cuddle hormone’.

“Social wounds require social interventions”

At the Warrior Canine Connection (which enlists US war veterans to train service dogs for other war veterans), she says service dogs have been successfully used to reduce symptoms of PTSD among war veterans, with an estimated 5,000 servicemen and women so far benefiting from this form of therapy. “Several studies have proved this. The dedicated attention you give to a dog, and which the dog in turn gives to you, is more effective in reducing the symptoms of PTSD than standard treatments,” she adds. “These people are not suffering from a mental illness; they are suffering from a social illness and so these social wounds require social interventions. There are so many dogs in Uganda, people just need to start looking at them differently, “Olmert explains.

Ugandan beneficiaries like 45-year-old Charles Watmon say they can finally live normal lives again because of the power of these dogs. Like many former child soldiers in his community, Charles was an eyewitness to the brutal murders of many children, including young boys who were hacked to death with machetes. “I always dreamed of the boys who died and how they were killed,” he says.

Back home, he faced stigma and social isolation. He had no friends and was in such despair about his life that he even attempted suicide. Since getting a therapy dog – named Ogen Rwot, meaning ‘trust in the Lord’ in the local Acholi language – Charles says his life has turned around. He is able to socialise with members of his community and he feels hopeful about his future. “I am a free man now. My dog has helped me heal,” he says with a smile.