Dogs healing souls in Uganda

‘She was incapable of eye contact. She couldn’t even stand up and say her name. Now she educates others and gives speeches in front of large groups of people.’ It was an astonishing transformation, and one of the many Sarah Schmidt has witnessed during her time as a project manager for the Comfort Dog Project in northern Uganda.

Vrouw houdt hond in haar armen voor Afrikaans gebouwtje

‘Dogs and people share a very similar disposition to social contact. We harness the strong bond people build with their dogs for psychosocial rehabilitation. There are many street dogs here that need a good home and we match them with war trauma survivors.

If people are interested, we look at the suitability of their homes and identify any possible anger issues. The dogs need to be safe as well, of course. Following diagnosis, the people are given psychological care. We use village group counselling and take into account the social aspects of rehabilitation.’

Training

‘Participants enter a training programme with their dogs. Former graduates of the programme teach them about practical matters such as feeding, recognising health issues and teaching commands. But this is all about building a bond, rather than learning tricks. The participants then receive guardianship of their dogs and get to name them. They pledge a lifetime commitment to their dog and we always make a big thing out of this, in front of the local leaders. It’s a real celebration.’

Lucy and Sadik

‘Lucy is one of our guardians. She was abducted at 13 years of age by the rebel army and was subjected to torture and rape. She gave birth to her children in the bush. After she got out, having become part of the rebel force, she was completely ostracised by the community. She had terrible nightmares, suffered from flashbacks and had suicidal thoughts. She was unable to connect with people but the dog changed that. She named him Sadik. Sadik would know when she was close to the edge and would come over to her. She is an active member of society now, making a living as a tailor. Sadik is always at her feet when she is working.’

Hurkende man met hond

Charles and Ogen Rwot

‘Charles is another one of our success stories. He endured horrible trauma, having been forced into combat for ten years. First he served with the government army, but was later abducted and forced to serve the rebel forces and commit horrible atrocities. On top of that, he lost his wife and children to HIV/AIDS. He was a wreck and began drinking heavily, as many people here do. After starting the Comfort Dog Project programme, he named his dog ‘Ogen Rwot’ which means ‘trust the Lord’. After a few months we noticed he wasn’t drinking anymore. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Ogen Rwot doesn’t like the smell so I had to stop’.

Conference on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support

‘We were delighted to learn about the conference on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support being held in the Netherlands. Here in Northern Uganda, people suffered horrible things in the violent civil war. People would return from the bush with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and perhaps a jerrycan. They were completely broken, unable to function and ostracised. Material things can’t fix this. In the West we are used to sending blankets but there is so much mental trauma. If we want to rebuild people’s lives and their societies, that is what needs to be addressed.’

Groep mannen en vrouwen met honden voor gebouwtje

The project is fully dependent on private donations but has managed to render impressive results diminishing participants’ PTSD symptoms.