CANADIAN-UKRAINIAN CANINE PROJECT CONTINUES WORK IN UKRAINE
Someone once told me that dogs would never be allowed into a hospital in Ukraine. “People are too hostile to the idea of dogs there,” I was warned, “they are considered an item and a nuisance, often only used to protect properties. It’s not like Canada there.”
Indeed, Ukraine can be differentiated from Canada in many ways. But an ability to evolve and respond to changing needs and demands is not one of them. This, evidenced by the fact that nearly two years after its conception, Hero’s Companion continues to grow and expand its activities in Ukraine’s capital region.
The Hero's Companion volunteers and veterans are
welcomed atthe Canadian Embassy in Ukraine by
Ambassdor Roman Waschuk
Hero’s Companion, an innovative, Canadian-Ukrainian project now under the auspices of the League of Ukrainian Canadians, focuses on harnessing the power of the human-canine bond to help heal the invisible wounds left behind by war. Although it started as a project to train and pair service dogs with injured Ukrainian soldiers, it has expanded to also include a therapy dog program. The therapy-dog program, staffed by 12 friendly canines and their volunteer-handlers, work with recovering injured soldiers and veterans, special needs children, and internally displaced people (IDPs) in Ukraine.
Over this past year the project developed and grew substantially. 2016 saw Hero’s Companion receive its first grant from the Canadian Embassy in Ukraine as part of the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives. We also began working in cooperation with the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, which provides specified, ongoing training for project volunteers. Perhaps most importantly, however, Hero’s Companion now regularly visits military medical rehabilitation centres where we work with an average of 50 soldiers and veterans a month. In addition to this, our therapy dog program is a regular component in educational institutions and rehabilitation centres serving special needs children in and around the Kyiv region. IDPs, including children affected by war, are also frequent beneficiaries of our therapy dog program.
Evidence of the growth and increasing popularity of the Hero’s Companion therapy and service dog programs is manifested by the multiple media requests received by uson a weekly basis. It helps that the stars of the news pieces are extremely friendly, approachable, and loveable (we are speaking about the dogs, of course…), but it also shows that Ukrainian society is interested and open to new methods of rehabilitation not only for psychologically injured veterans and IDPs, but also in the realm of special needs children.
Therapy dog Nessi greets an injured soldier
at a medical rehabilitation centre in Kyiv.
Photo courtesy of Ukrainska Pravda.
That’s not to saythe project hasn’t faced its fair share of challenges. As with the implementation of many new ideas and concepts in post-Soviet countries, cultural differences and norms can sometimes lead to uncertainty, resistance, and even outright rejection. Today Hero’s Companion therapy dogs regularly visit a medical rehabilitation centre in downtown Kyiv called the Institute of Medical Work, Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine. Initially, however,it took considerable lobbying on our part to convince staff to not only designate an area for us to regularly work in, but also to have a psychologist or other qualified medical professional work with the veteran-patients in tandem with the therapy dogs, as this is when best results are achieved.
In another instance, a therapy dog had been working at a psychological rehabilitation clinic which treated patients (soldiers and IDPs) on a one-on-one basis. When Hero’s Companion tried to systematize our visits there it was suggested that if we wanted to continue volunteering with the psychologists we should consider paying them for allowing us to be a part of their work.
Thankfully, instances such as these have been the exception. Fuelling our continuous work forward are mounting numbers of success stories that have demonstrated the value of our working dogs.
Therapy dog Rikki and veteran Petro during
a weekly visit at the Institute of Medical Work,
Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine (Kyiv).
At the medical rehabilitation centre, for example, many soldier/veteran patients have grown accustomed to our weekly visits and await them with anticipation. “This interaction really helps me. After the last therapy dog visits, I felt really good. The pain in my leg subsided, gloomy thoughts went away. I came again today to receive the same positive effect from the dogs. It seems to me that the dog just pulls all the negativity out from me, and I feel better physically and psychologically! Come again, you guys are needed!” said Petro, an older veteran at the rehabilitation centre at the Institute of Medical Work, Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine. Another veteran, Andrij, who was bedridden due to his injuries, would, every week, have his friends carry him down into the room where the therapy dogs would be so that he could participate in the sessions.
On the service dog side a new veteran, Sashko, began training with service dog in-training Deep. Deep, a golden Labrador Retriever, had initially been trained for another veteran, but due to unforeseen circumstances was not able to continue working with him. So when Sashko became acquainted with the program while a patient at the military rehabilitation centre, Deep’s availability and need for a new veteran to be paired with coincided perfectly.
Sashko and his service dog in training, Deep.
Photo courtesy of Ukrainska Pravda.
Sashko had served as a medic at the front over the past year. He was undergoing rehabilitation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other invisible injuries left behind by war. Like many of his brothers-in-arms who had returned from the front, Sashko had found reintegrating back into civilian life more difficult than imagined. Before entering rehab he would turn to alcohol to numb his troubling thoughts, and would often get in fights at local bars and hangouts. When Sashko’s psychotherapist began working with him she often had one of our therapy dogs present for individual consultations. She found this calmed him down, lowered stress levels, and allowed him to relax and talk more openly, which helped progress the veteran’s healing process.
Therapy dog Nessi brings smiles to a boy at the
Chernihiv No. 2 Educational-Rehabilitation Centre
for Special Needs Children.
Acknowledging the positive role the therapy dog had played during his time at the rehabilitation centre, and still struggling with his new post-war realities,Sashko became interested in the Hero’s Companion service dog program. It is not always the case that the veteran is a good match with the dog he is initially paired with, but with Deep the two hit it off almost immediately. Not having owned a dog before, there was a lot of basics Sashko needed to learn, but as service dog trainer Maryna noted, “He has made lots of positive progress and the bond between the two grows stronger every day that they spend together.” Sashko will continue to train with Deep for at least another six months, or until Maryna feels the two are ready to be tested for certification.
Even though right now Deep only stays with Sashko on weekends and some weekdays, the veteran confided in Maryna the changes he has already seen and felt in his life, “I feel wanted and needed now,” he said, “Now the neighbours all know me and want to talk to me, people I had been living next to for years and whose name I didn’t even know! Everyone is interested in Deep, they stop and have friendly conversations with me about him, what his [service dog] vest means, and how he helps me. I no longer feel invisible.”
Sashko’s story is but one example of how therapy dogs, and if necessary, service dogs, help in the healing journeys of those returning with mental scars of war. It demonstrates how man’s best friend can not only play important roles at the front, but also back home in the rehabilitation sphere.
Therapy dog Rikki works with a boy at the Chernihiv
No. 2 Educational-Rehabilitation Centre for Special
But perhaps one of the most notable and rather unexpected transformations brought about by the Hero’s Companion program is the change in the project’s volunteers. One, NataliaChuprun, had come to have her dog (the now famous Riki) tested through our program a year ago. While travelling together to a school for special needs children a few months ago, she admitted to me that initially she wanted to join the project to “give her dog something to do.” “But now,” she said, “I do it because I see that it is the right thing to do, and that my dog can make a difference in people’s lives.”
The project’s Program Coordinator in Kyiv, OlyaSmirnova, too believes that the project’s work is making an impact on society in Ukraine. “I left my job at the Ministry of Health because I wasn’t seeing any results for my efforts,” said Smirnova, “But here, I can see that our work is bringing about real changes, I can see it has an impact on those we work with – the veterans, the IDPs, the special needs children, the psychologists, and the staff at universities that we collaborate with. It is truly a social rehabilitation project in every sense of the word.”
Now well into its second year of work, the project has come a long way since it was launched in August 2015. Whereas in the first year the focus was on laying the groundwork, building networks and partnerships, and gaining a foothold in military hospitals and rehabilitation centres, this second year has been geared toward growing the program (in and outside of Kyiv), training and development of project volunteers, and raising awareness about the role dogs can play in various rehabilitation settings. In Canada the project, together with the League of Ukrainian Canadians, is led by an eight-person steering committee and works in partnership with the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.
Moving forward Hero’s Companionhas set for itself some ambitious goals, including working in areas closer to the ATO zone, expanding the project to new cities in Ukraine, and continuing to collaborate with local and national level Ukrainian lawmakers to establish laws protecting the rights of various types of assistance dogs. Given the success of and demand for the therapy dog program, it will continue to operate as the focus of the Hero’s Companion project.
We encourage everyone to follow the project’s journey via our regularly updated social media pages (Facebook: @HerosCompanion, Twitter and Instagram: @heros_companion) and on our website heroscompanion.org.
To support the ongoing work of Hero’s Companion, donations can be made at any Buduchnist Credit Union (Account #70882), online (heroscompanion.org), or by mailing in a cheque made out to “Hero’s Companion” to “Hero’s Companion, 2282 Bloor Street West, Suite 204, Toronto, ON, M6S 1N9, Canada”.