Former lra abductees get mental relief from therapy dogs
By Eden Mic
Darkness and isolation were Lucy Amono’s worst moments: the rustling of leaves, the shadows and footsteps.
“I would constantly conceive that someone was coming to abduct me again,” said the 30- year-old former abductee of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.
Amono was abducted in 1997, when she was only 10 years old. She escaped after spending a year in captivity. But a grisly event following her escape became another agonizing episode in her life.
“When the LRA followed me home and didn’t find me, they killed my sister in revenge," Amono says.
For seven years, Amono experienced nightmares, bouts of depression and sadness; she felt guilty because of her sister’s death.
She became part of the thousands of mental health patients in northern Uganda, who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, - a mental disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.
Sad; because her dear ones were brutally killed-“I felt partly responsible.”
Hence, Amono sought help from the Comfort Dog Project, where she was given, gum, a brown-colored, stout, therapy-dog.
The Comfort Dog Project, the first in Uganda, gives therapeutic assistance to former LRA abductees, UPDF veterans, and war-affected community members through the use of dogs, believed to provide relief from the post traumatic effects of war the war in northern Uganda.
Now, Amono credits her recovery to gum, an Acoli word which means, luck.
Each day she returns from the market; tired and thoughtful, one thing is certain; she has to greet gum.
“If I come in quietly and not say hello, it will bark and wag its tail till I say hello, rub its back and talk.”
“Gum has helped reduce my pain. I am constantly talking to it; this interrupts any lingering and bad thoughts.”
It is more than a decade since the LRA war ended, but hundreds of former abductees and victims still suffer from PTSD and depression.
The psychological and physical effects of the LRA war prompted Francis Okello Oloya, 29, who was blinded by a bomb blast as he was gardening in 1998, to establish the Comfort Dog Project.
Okello was in primary four, when he the incident happenned from his village in Pabbo, in Amuru district. The traumatic event made Okello suffer loneliness and seclusion, because his close friends abandoned him.
At school, he considered it a burden asking fellow students for a guide to the latrine at night.
“Instinctively, two dogs in the neighborhood kept leading me each night I wanted to answer nature’s call.”
“A bond grew between us,” he narrated.
At Makerere University in Kampala, Okello studied Community Psychology, which he said counselled him out of the pain of losing his sight.
After graduating in 2014, Okello used his experience with the dogs to establish the Comfort Dog Project in 2015, to help traumatized victims of the LRA war.
According to Okello, seven in every 10 people in northern Uganda experienced a war situation, and need help to treat their mental scars.
Okello revealed that most of his clients have had severed relationships due to their [war] experiences, which has plunged them into deep depression and loneliness. Such people, Okello said need frequent companionship to recover.
“Dogs listen to our commands...human interactions with dogs is frequent, unlike other animals such as cattle, which are eaten, or sold off”, Okello explained.
“You can take a walk with a dog in the evening, but not with a goat or cow,” he said.
Okello explained that regular gentle touches between a dog and its client lead to release of the hormone oxytocin in both parties, and subsequent happiness and reduced tension.
“The action gives both parties a sense of belonging and security,” he says.
Okello explained that clients’ interaction with dogs has helped them manage their anger and reduced the prejudgment that former LRA abductees are rude.
“Having a dog helps keep ones anger in check. When a dog angers you, you can’t lash at, or fight it as you would a human being. You will have to wait for it to behave,” he said.
Mental health specialists believe that bonding with dogs may help survivors of mass shootings or war veterans recover from trauma.
According to a study by frontiers in psychology, animals have a long history of inclusion in psychiatric treatment, a practice known as known as Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI).
Many people in Uganda use dogs for hunting and guarding homes. Few are treated with kindness. But at the Comfort Dog Project, the dogs are handled with love and dignity. Each client is required to sit at the same level with their dog; preferably on a mat, to breed the perception of equality.
The dogs are got from the community and given a temperament test, to ensure their docility, believed to be vital in a client’s healing process.
“A rebellious dog slows or even worsens a client’s mental state,”Okello explained.
When a client consents to using a therapy dog, s/he is free to name it, depending on their experience; either in captivity or back home.
Each midmorning, the clients take their dogs in an enclosed pitch, where each of them commands their dog using mono-syllables such as; “Come.” “See.” “Greet.” “Down,” and” Up.
The relationship doesn’t end the commanded and responses.
“A client has to wash, brush the dogs’ teeth, feed and let it sleep in a clean and comfortable bed,” he said.
“It is also a requirement that each client stops drinking; because it exacerbates their mental health problem,” Okello said.
Okello said dog Company makes clients spend more time playing and talking with their dog, instead of going drinking, and complicating their mental health problems.
Training is done for five months; here, each client builds a bond with their dog, through playing together, sitting and sleeping close to each other.
Every month, the organization moves in villages to carryout group therapy. Okello explained that; “…talking about ones [war] experience in public is already part of healing…it encourages those suffering in silence to open up and get necessary help.”
Clients are recruited after every five months, with eight people each in-take. However, Okello said during community sensitizations every month, they record at least 100 people exhibiting signs of PTSD and depression.
“We register between 20-25 potential clients in each village, but only enroll eight per in-take, because we are resource constrained,” Okello said.
Majority of the clients, Okello said, are from Koro Sub-county, renown for suicide tendencies. Since the program was rolled out in Koro in 2017, fifteen clients have been registered from there.
Okello revealed that the clients’ relationship with dogs has changed their lives, and some who completed their training are now dog trainers and community counselors.
Jennifer Arach returned from LRA captivity after two years in captivity. Arach underwent many ghastly experiences; including seeing her mother being clobbered to death.
“I relived the horrible scene for a decade, because I was always isolated,” she said.
Now, Opwonya, Arach’s therapy dog has helped cancel her bad dreams.
“Opwoya is my daily companion. It has taught me to interact with my peers.”