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    Dog therapy for kids facing the trauma of the war in Ukraine

    BOYARKA, UKRAINE (AP) – Bice is an American pit bull terrier with an important job in Ukraine, comforting children traumatised by Russia’s war. The 8-year-old dog arrived on time to a rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, to start his duties.

    As Bice waited in a hallway, inside of what looked like a school classroom, a dozen children were seated around a table listening to a psychologist, Oksana Sliepova.

    “Who has a dog?,” she asked and several hands raised at once while the space filled with shouts of “Me, me, me!”.

    One youngster said his dog was named Stitch; “Tank,” said another boy adding that he has a total of five, but he forgot all their names. Everyone burst out laughing.

    The seven girls and nine boys, ranging in age from a two-year-old boy to an 18-year-old young woman, look at first like schoolchildren enjoying class. But they have particular stories: Some witnessed how Russian soldiers invaded their hometowns and beat their relatives. Some are the sons, daughters, brothers or sisters of soldiers who are on the front lines or were killed on them.

    Children playing with “Bice” in the Centrefor Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka, Ukraine. PHOTO: AP

    They come together at the Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation, a state-operated community centre where people can get help coping with traumatic experiences after Russia’s invasion in February.

    In the past they have worked with horses, but now they are adding support from another four-legged friend: Canine therapy. Located in Boyarka, a suburb around 20 kilometers southwest of Kyiv, the centre was established in 2000 as part of an effort to give psychological support to people affected, directly or indirectly by the explosion at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl in 1986.

    Now it focusses on people affected by the war. These days, when some areas are without power after the Russian attacks to Ukrainian energy infrastructure, the two-storey building is one of the few places with light and heating.

    With the kids gathered, some wearing festive blue or red Christmas hats, Sliepova cagily asked if they wanted to meet someone. They answered yes. The door opened. The faces of the children glowed. They smiled and in came Bice, the tail-wagging therapist.

    Darina Kokozei, the pooch’s owner and handler asked the children to come to ask him to do a trick or two. He sat and stood up on his hind legs. He extended a paw or rolled over.

    Then, a group hug, followed by a few tasty treats for him. For more than 30 minutes, Bice let everybody to touch him and hug him without ever barking. It was as if nothing else mattered at that moment, as if there were nothing to worry about. This is the first time that Sliepova has worked with a dog as part of her therapies. But, she said, “I read a lot of literature that working with dogs, with four-legged rehabilitators, helps children reduce stress, increase stress resistance, and reduce anxiety”. The kids did not seem stressed out, but of course the reality is still out there. She observed how some children are scared of loud noises, like when someone closes a window or when they hear the sound of a jet.

    Some drop to the floor or start asking whether there’s a bomb shelter close. Sliepova said that among the children were a sibling from Kupyansk, a city in the eastern region of Kharkiv who witnessed Russian soldiers storming into their home with machine guns, grabbing their grandfather, putting a bag on his head and beating him.” Each child is psychologically traumatised in different ways,” she said.

    As for the comforting canine, what’s the best message that Bice offers the kids? Owner Kokozei needs to think for only a couple of seconds, and replies: “Freedom.”

    “Freedom from problems, and happiness,” she added.

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