In northern Uganda, war survivors and comfort dogs are ‘healing together’

Comfort dogs and their humans. Photo by Dan Ayebare and Richard Mugambe, used with permission.

This story was originally published by Minority Africa and a shortened version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing partnership agreement.

In July 2002, rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) shattered Evelyne Anena's world, killing her husband in front of her and their children. To cope with the haunting trauma, Anena sought refuge in Big Fix Uganda, an organization located in Gulu, northern Uganda, which specializes in the treatment and rehabilitation of individuals and stray dogs.

A United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) report highlights the disproportionate impact of war on women and girls, affecting their psychological, reproductive, and overall well-being. 

Anena, speaking to Minority Africa, said, “For almost 20 years, I could not sleep because every time I closed my eyes, I relived my husband’s murder.”

Life took a devastating turn for the mother of four after the tragic day she lost her husband, a policeman and the family's primary breadwinner. This loss compelled the family to seek refuge in Gulu Town. In that place, Anena and her children confronted dire circumstances. Without a job, it became challenging for her to provide for herself and her children. 

After the dust settled, they returned home in 2008. However, Anena's in-laws said she could no longer live at her previous home, citing her gender as a reason for her lack of rights to the land:

“They wanted me to leave with my children and go back to my parents’ home. However, my parents and two of my siblings were also killed by the rebels, so I didn't really have anyone to go back to.” 

Anena and her children finally managed to secure some land, providing a lifeline for their survival. Yet, challenges persisted, and some of the land was later taken by her in-laws.

In 2021, Anena joined Big Fix Uganda to seek counseling. During the sessions, she found companionship in Peyot, a dog also grappling with its own trauma.

Anena at the farm with her dog, Peyot. Photo by Dan Ayebare and Richard Mugambe, used with permission.

“Peyot in the Acholi language means ‘It’s not easy.’ I gave it that name because of what we both had been through. After starting counseling and meeting Peyot, I was able to sleep well within the first three weeks,” Anena says, glancing at Peyot, who was resting beside her with eyes closed, seemingly in agreement. 

Francis Oloya, a community psychologist and manager of the Comfort Dog Project and education program at Big Fix Uganda, explains that they primarily employ animal-assisted interventions using dog therapy to treat and rehabilitate the mental health of war trauma survivors.

“'We have experienced decades of war between the LRA and the Uganda government, leaving thousands of people suffering from the war's effects to date,” Oloya says.

Oloya's involvement in the project is a testament to the profound impact dogs can have. Visually impaired, he formed a meaningful connection with two dogs belonging to a neighbor. 

“The dogs instinctively came to know that I needed help. Whenever I left the school's dormitory for class, they would come and lead me, helping me navigate, especially at night,” Oloya says, while gently petting his comfort dog Bailey, who sat at his feet, nervously observing the surroundings. He explains further:

“That was the situation of helplessness I was going through. I felt that I needed someone to be there for me, and these dogs came to the rescue time and again. I felt safe.” 

Throughout his high school years, Oloya continued working with the dogs. He completed school and entered the university, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in community psychology.

After completing his degree, Oloya returned to northern Uganda, crossing paths with Sarah Smith, the president of Big Fix Uganda. 

“We came to the understanding that dogs can help people, and that is how the Comfort Dog Project was born,” Oloya, the manager of the Comfort Dog Project, says. 

To ensure the program achieves effective outcomes, the pairing of the dogs and their companions undergoes a rigorous process.

Potential beneficiaries are identified within communities through engagements with residents and consultations with village leaders focusing on trauma and mental health disorders. They then undergo assessments using depression tools such as the Post Traumatic Scale Intervention (PRSI) and Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). These tools help evaluate the severity of mental health conditions, providing crucial insights into the individuals’ needs.

“All the dogs used in the program are rescued, as well,” Oloya says. “Most of them have had guardians; some also suffered trauma like motorcycle and vehicle accidents, while others had been caught by metallic traps and sustained injuries. Some went through tough conditions where insensitive community members subjected them to serious wounds by stoning them,” he continued. 

When the dogs are rescued, they receive veterinary care and vaccinations before undergoing rehabilitation.

“Then we give them a temperament test to check whether the dog is friendly, if they can socialize, and can also work with a person,” Oloya said. “Temperament tests check if the dog is fit for the program.”  

As the pairing is conducted within village communities, an additional assessment involves a “prey drive test” for the dogs, gauging whether they exhibit a tendency to chase or harm other animals, such as chickens.

Once the dogs successfully undergo these tests and are deemed suitable for pairing, Oloya elaborates on the complexity of the next step: “The pairing of dogs and guardians involves a thorough compatibility assessment, considering factors like the dog’s behavior around the potential guardian, the age and appearance of the dog in relation to the guardian, their specific needs, and whether they share common traits, such as playfulness.”

With a hint of concern, he added, “We also do inspections to check if the home is ready for the dog; like if the home has a kennel, if family members are ready to receive the new member, and if the neighbourhood is safe for the dog.” 

Pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond. Studies show that interacting with a friendly pet can help with various physical and mental issues

Since the program began, Big Fix Uganda has successfully trained approximately 1,000 dog guardian teams. Currently, there are 82 active members, with 70 percent being women dealing with the effects of the LRA's rebel activities in the region.

Evelyne Anena and Peyot. Photo by Dan Ayebare and Richard Mugambe, used with permission.

For Anena, the untimely death of her husband and the ensuing instability meant her children missed out on opportunities for a better life. She believes these circumstances prevented her from providing her children with the education they needed to enhance their prospects and improve their lives.

However, she always looks forward to Saturdays, when people and their comfort dogs gather for training sessions, participating in various activities, including grooming and cleaning the dogs, mastering obedience training tricks, and annually participating with Peyot in dog games on October 4 in celebration of World Animal Day

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