Solution 15:32 15 Feb 2023

Animal-assisted therapy and military rehabilitation: How man's best friend can heal the scars of war

Rubryka learned how certified therapy dogs Ash, Berta, Motiko, and Linda help veterans and their families in Zaporizhzhia in the south of Ukraine.

What is the problem?

War wipes cities and villages off the face of the earth. Death, blood, shelling, and explosions are what soldiers defending Ukraine face on a daily basis. Combat experience can leave military personnel with both physical and psychological injuries, and their psyche undergoes significant changes when they return to civilian life. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and panic attacks are among the most common "trophies" which soldiers bring home from the front.

What is the solution?

Animal therapy is one of the methods Ukrainian veterans are using to heal psychological trauma. With the help of specially trained dogs, this rehabilitation method had proven itself in Ukraine well before 2022, in working with children, people with disabilities, and institutions for the elderly. Now, therapy dogs have taken on a major new role in rehabilitation centers for war veterans.

In Ukraine's southern Zaporizhzhia region, the Palms of Peace dog therapy project is implemented by the NGO Alexandra and S.. Social and psychological support for veterans and their families is a priority for many local NGOs because many soldiers who live there, as well as those who come from other regions, undergo rehabilitation in hospitals. Specialists at Alexandra and S and their four-legged partners are helping Ukrainian soldiers recover, and bring positive change to their lives. Anastasia Ihrushko, head of the Palms of Peace project, shared her experience using dog therapy in working with veterans and their family members.

The project is implemented thanks to the IREX Ukraine Veterans Reintegration Program with the support of the US State Department.

How does it work?

Palms of peace and paws of support

Каністерапія та реабілітація військових

The NGO Aleksandra and S was created to support people in difficult situations and help them protect themselves in the military conflict and the difficult economic situation in Ukraine. From 2016 until the beginning of russia's full-scale invasion in 2022, it organized individual and group classes on coping with PTSD and protection of personal rights for IDPs, Ukraine's anti-terrorist operation participants, and their families. It also provides medical and legal assistance, as well as serving as a training hub for social workers.

In 2019, the organization took an interest in dog therapy for veterans and their families. Members of Aleksandra and S took part in a training program for therapists with the support of the German foundation GIZ. They opened the first dog therapy center in Zaporizhzhia in February 2020. Under the guidance of certified psychologists and experts, dogs began working with children with disabilities, couples in the framework of mediation, internally displaced persons, participants, and veterans of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) —  an area of implementing measures to ensure national security and defense and repel and deter armed aggression of the russian federation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions the eastern part of Ukraine that has been ongoing since 2014.

Dogs fight, rescue, and heal

Каністерапія та реабілітація військових

Patron, a Jack Russel Terrier with a nose for spotting deadly land mines, has become a nationwide sensation and a symbol of Ukraine's resistance.

Dog-assisted therapy is a type of psychotherapeutic assistance with the participation of therapy dogs.

It has been scientifically proven that dogs can help soldiers not only at the front, but when they return to civilian life. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and suicidal moods are what common among veterans, and combining psychotherapy and various other therapy can have a positive impact on a person's overall health, says as Anastasiya Ihrushko, head of the dog therapy project Peace Palms. "The secret is that animals treat people impartially," Ihrushko told Rubryka.  When a patient may not yet be ready for physical contact with an animal, indirect contact with images and cartoon characters may also be used.

Why a dog?

  • Dogs can give a person touch and affection.
  • The presence of the dog calms both the mind and the body, having a stabilizing effect on the client.
  • Since dogs can exhibit the same complex behavior patterns as humans, they can help a patient reflect on themselves.
  • The presence of a dog can calm anxious patients, help them open up, and motivate them to visit their therapist regularly. 
  • The dog helps stabilize the emotional climate in the therapist's office improving mutual understanding between the therapist and the client.
  • The dog often occupies a central place in the process of the therapeutic session.

For veterans, interaction with a dog is of great importance because they often accompany soldiers far from home, while on duty, or even in combat positions. They keep soldiers warm, warn them of danger, and just be a friend whom they trust and communicate with. That is why trust and personality development supported through a dog in therapy; feelings and emotions are revealed, and the process of healing and social adaptation can improve.

Anastasia Ihrushko says that after February 24, 2022, even those veterans who had already undergone dog therapy started to return because the full-scale russian invasion reopened  the psychological traumas they had experienced.

Каністерапія та реабілітація військових

How does a dog therapy session work?

Work can be done both individually and in groups. Not everyone can immediately open up to a psychologist or psychotherapist, and this is where the dog helps — its presence positively affects people, and they open up more quickly. As the experience of therapists shows just the presence of an animal during a session is often enough to help a person calm down and relax.. The therapist collaborates with the dog specialist to coordinate their interactions with the patient throughout the session.

Dog therapy positively affects:

  • development of empathy;
  • reduction of anxiety, improvement of mood, normalization of respiratory and heart rhythms, normalization of blood pressure and muscle tone;
  • communication;
  • the quality and amplitude of movements, improving functioning;
  • the effectiveness of training;
  • therapy of post-traumatic stress disorder.

каністерапія для військових

Furry friends help the Palms of Peace project to achieve significant results. Certified therapy dogs Ash, Berta, Motiko, and Linda, who have been working with adults and children in therapy since 2018. Dogs can also work in psychiatric hospitals with both children and adults, in nursing homes, and in schools. Loving and empathetic dogs are always ready to give their love to people who need support and affection.

Каністерапія та реабілітація військових

"Our project is designed to offer help to those who need it most now," says Anastasia Ihrushko, head of Palms of Peace. "Those to whom we are grateful for our saved lives and who deserve respect and support the most. We really want and are trying with all our might to help the lives of veterans be filled with peace and love," she told Rubryka. 

Does it really work?

Каністерапія та реабілітація військових

Therapy dogs play a key role in the difficult but important process of healing the invisible wounds of war. The project's initiators admit they were surprised at how much of a difference therapy dogs could have in people's lives.

Ihrushko recalls working with the family of a veteran of the anti-terrorist operation (since 2014), who has now again stood up for Ukraine's defense. The defender became the caretaker of three children that all participated in dog therapy. While the sessions started with the routine aim of establishing harmonious communication in the family, signs of previous domestic violence against the children soon came to light, so the focus shifted to the psychological rehabilitation and adaptation of children and their new guardians.

Dog therapy is also effective in family mediation, helping spouses not only to understand each other better, but often to cope with conflict situations, even unfaithfulness. In such cases, dog therapy allows them to work on their trauma, family values, and countering domestic violence.

The project team is proud to be able to implement and develop dog therapy in Ukraine and provide assistance to people who need it. They invite veterans in Zaporizhzhia to join the social project Palms of Peace.

Even more helpful solutions!

каністерапія для військових

Dogs are the most popular therapists and companions among pets. Mutual coexistence with them saturates people's life and helps them experience emotions. Medical studies confirm the influence of dogs on human health.

1️⃣ Reducing the level of stress and anxiety

Interacting with dogs increases oxytocin, which reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone", is released in the brain after watching a dog for a few minutes. Petting your dog and playing with it helps to reduce anxiety and calm you down even faster.

2️⃣ Strengthening of the cardiovascular system and stabilization of blood pressure

According to cardiological studies, dog owners are significantly less prone to drops in blood pressure and heart problems. In addition to soothing you during communication, stroking your beloved pets and taking them on regular walks in the fresh air are of great importance.

3️⃣ Increase in physical activity

It's no secret that having a pet makes a person move more. Between walking your dog, playing games with them, bathing, and cleaning up after them, you're sure to be more active with a pet.

4️⃣ Reducing the risk of diseases

It has been proven that communication with pets can strengthen the  immune system. In addition, children who grew up in families with pets are much less likely to suffer from allergies.

5️⃣ The healing effect of animals on humans

Animal therapy can be effective at relieving chronic pain and improving mood during the course of a patient's treatment.. Communicating with animals can make it possible for them to recover faster from illnesses and eliminate fear and anxiety.


If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Leave a Reply

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: