How pets can help children cope with trauma and abuse

You are sitting in a large room full of strangers. One of them keeps asking you questions. They start out more general but get more and more specific about how someone touched you, how someone hurt you, how someone raped you. That someone is there, staring at you across the room. You have to be brave and honest; you must be loud and clear. You will be interrupted, doubted, confused and sometimes yelled at. You are six years-old.

Now, think of yourself there, on the stand with a dog by your side.

In the last ten years, programs using “therapy dogs” have been launched in the United States to help children, often survivors of sexual abuse, testify in the courtroom, relax in medical examinations while evidence is collected, and to encourage continual treatment and therapy.

There are many benefits to using therapy dogs including, building rapport with an adult and engaging a withdrawn child, reducing anxiety and stress, allowing the child to recount trauma while maintaining an emotional distance from people, and reducing feelings of alienation that helps the child to communicate without the risk of rejection.

“Abby”, a ten year-old girl in foster care with a history of sexual abuse, demonstrated inappropriate social behavior with her peers, hyper-vigilance, an inability to concentrate, nightmares, panic, hyperactivity and numbing feelings. These are typical feelings for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK) Manual, written by Allie Phillips and Diana McQuarrie, Abby and Rigo, a five year-old black lab, met on Valentine’s Day and the two formed an alliance.

If Abby wanted Rigo to stop licking, she learned the command to stop him, which helped her  understand boundaries. During visits, Abby could pet and groom Rigo, teaching her that physical contact could be positive, comforting and gentle. He was a dog who didn’t have words to communicate. Everything in Rigo’s world is about understanding humans through tone of voice and body movement. Abby, in turn, developed similar skills to read his behavior. This bond reached beyond their friendship and equipped her with the skills to interact with people in a new way, improve social interaction and build healthy peer relationships.

When we raise children, we are designing a blueprint – we mold an identity. Abby’s identity was sculpted by the hands of a sexual abuser. She was not afforded the opportunity to learn that men can protect you. She didn’t know that she was allowed space to close doors and say no. She did not yet know that life could be beautiful.

After sessions with Rigo, Abby was able to talk about her abuse. Her behavior in both school and the foster home improved. She was enjoying a relationship with pictures and mementos, including a stuffed, black lab she could keep and take home. This provided Abby with reminders of safety, a tool to soothe her mind and a sense of consistency.

In 2011, during the trial of a sexual predator in New York, a therapy dog was allowed in the courtroom during testimony of a fifteen year-old victim. In this case, the defense attorney argued that the “comfort dog” made it easier for the witness to provide false testimony during the trial. There were also concerns that the dog evoked sympathy for the victim.

According to Allie Phillips, co-creator of the TASK Program and national expert on providing therapy animals for crime victims, therapy animals cannot invoke false testimony in a witness. Phillips states, “In fact, the contrary occurs. With therapy animals, victims and witnesses are more calm, feel safe and therefore are better able to recall events and answer the questions of all attorneys, thus promoting fairness to all involved in the case.”

Therapy dogs can be trained from any background. These dogs live with their owners and are trained to work with a variety of different people in different situations, whereas service dogs (dogs you might see assisting someone with a disability) are trained specifically to assist one disabled person with day-to-day activities.  Molly Jenkins, Research Analyst for the American Humane Association, works in animal assisted therapy (ATT) for children with cancer. “In general, therapy dogs must undergo basic behavioral training and be comfortable and calm in unpredictable environments and situations. They also need to enjoy interactions with people and attend to their owner’s commands and directions. Before they can volunteer, therapy dogs and their handlers need to be formally evaluated and certified/registered by an ATT  program or organization,” states Jenkins.