“They would not talk to people, but they started talking to the dog.” How two dogs, Bjorn and Jackie, are helping to treat children


Thanks to the EU, canistherapy support has become available in Belarusian city of Brest.

Bjorn and Jackie often visit “Tonus”, the regional centre for medical rehabilitation for children with neurological and developmental disorders in Brest, Belarus. Dogs are brought to the centre to treat the children.

“This is a serious matter”

The project which focuses on canistherapy – a method of treatment and rehabilitation using specially trained dogs – was initiated by the public association the Brest Union of Entrepreneurs, also known as “Assistance”. The leader of the association, Vladimir Mazalov, says that the implementation of the project showed how not only the third sector and public organisations can interact, but also partners from different countries.

He says that the Ukrainian non-governmental organisation “Laska”, from Lutsk, was looking for a partner in Belarus and found one in the form of the Assistance association. Mazalov then found the Tonus rehabilitation centre in Brest and Zhivitsa regional children's rehabilitation hospital in Homieĺ, where the project was implemented.

“According to the terms of the project, it was necessary to train the centres' staff on the basics of therapy and create the conditions for therapy. That was done. However, this is an innovative project, and the difficulty is that in Belarus there is no regulatory framework for therapy; standards for dogs have not been developed,” says Mazalov. “But this is a serious matter, because besides the training of a specialist, there must be training for a dog. I would like the idea of ​​the project to be sustainable, and canistherapy to become widespread in the country. For example, canistherapy could be developed within the framework of the state social order.”

Mazalov notes that Assistance had opportunities to train specialists, but there was no possibility to test, select and train dogs and issue certificates to them.

Formally, the project is over. But in reality, it continues at the Tonus rehabilitation centre.

Special dogs with endless patience

Two children, Stasik and Vanya, were well prepared for their canistherapy. Both had drawn pictures of the dog, Jackie, with whom they had already had a session a few days before our visit. Stasik drew, in his words, “just a dog”, while Ivan drew a male one. Both boys made sure that Jackie took the drawings away with her after the session.

“We were told that she would read a book for us,” Stasik said. “In her own language,” he added. Jackie was just as they hoped: she “read” the book, carried out their orders, played with the children and even accepted their treats. The boys were elated, and the dog looked happy too.

However, Stasik kept going back to his notebook. As it turned out, the boy took it upon himself to write down commands for the dog in German: "A German Shepherd was supposed to come to us!"

So, when Stasik shouted his commands in German, another dog came to him: Bjorn. Bjorn understands commands in Russian, and in German too. Neither Stasik nor Ivan were disappointed: he gave them his paw, let them brush his fur and pet him; he even let the children find hidden gifts in the pockets of his backpack. At the same time, he did not make any additional, unexpected moves – there was no barking, just complete calmness and friendliness.

Stasik and Ivan even asked why the little dog was so active and the big one was so calm.

As it turned out, Bjorn – the larger dog – was calm, partly due to his character (other dogs of his size simply would not be allowed close to children), but also because he is nine years old and Jackie is only five. Stasik reflected on this for a while and described the two dogs as follows: “Bjorn is a pensioner and Jackie is like a mature young lady.”

In reality, both of these dogs are retired. Bjorn and Jackie have both served on the border, together with their owner, dog handler Svetlana Sholomitskaya. The dogs spent five years  as detection dogs, searching for and finding drugs on a daily basis.

Svetlana told the boys that the dogs served in the army, and she said to us that they worked for many years but they did not receive enough love – not the love they are getting in their new lives.

“For instance, Bjorn is a gentle dog. He likes to be petted, but of course, it was not easy to satisfy this need in his previous job,” Svetlana said. “And Jackie, she is a natural model, she adores the camera and the attention.”

Svetlana has a few more dogs at home but, of course, not all of them are suitable for working with children. The selection criteria are very strict.

The dog must not only carry out commands, but also be tolerant of children's unpredictable behaviour. Ideally, the selection system looks like this: first, from a sufficiently large number of animals, about 20 dogs are chosen according to the minimum requirements.

They are then trained to work together with a dog handler and a specialist. After the training, they are tested. Only two or three dogs remain after that.

11-year-old Ivan and his mother Oksana come from Pruzhany District. The boy has cerebral palsy. Oksana says she sees the effect of her son’s rehabilitation, and that he is happy after his lessons with the dogs.

Ivan has a dog at home, too. But his dog, Krepysh, cannot carry out commands, which led Ivan to ask the dog handler how it is possible to teach a grown-up dog, such as Jackie, to carry out commands. Svetlana explained that he needed to understand what the dog likes most of all and build the training around that.

“Canistherapy brings joy to everyone”

Classes with dogs are now held three times a day at Tonus. There are both individual and group sessions, which have so far involved around 70 children. According to the methods of canistherapy, defectologists Oksana Chopchits and Tatyana Kozhukhar work together with the dog handler.

Last year, when the project was just starting, they surprised Andrey Bogdanovich, the head physician of Tonus, with their unequivocal willingness to join it. They were trained in Lutsk and began to work together with Svetlana.

After a while, Tatyana got a dog. Oksana knows this happiness; she has had her own dog for 12 years.

Of course, not every child can have sessions with dogs, as Oksana explains. Children can have contraindications for health-related reasons, such as allergies. Sometimes, parents bring the child to canistherapy, but it turns out that the child is afraid of dogs, sometimes of all dogs, sometimes only of big ones.

They say in the centre that canistherapy is a special occupation, because it brings joy to all: children, teachers, dog handlers and dogs.

“As a specialist, I see a special meaning in such therapy sessions, because they are interesting to everyone; this therapy is not only for children, but also for parents,” says Oksana.

“Children open up during therapy, start trusting the teacher,” adds Tatyana. Speech pathology teachers also note that it would be fair if the state supported the initiative, as the dogs need to eat and be treated. The current initiative is possible thanks to volunteering, but will need material support after the end of the project.

“I was found and invited to the project,” recalls Svetlana. “I think I was the only dog handler who agreed to participate. At the time, I had a dog with which we worked with the child, at the request of his mother. We saw clear progression, which the experts noted as well. And now the project is completed, we continue working.”

Andrei Bogdanovich says that the project gave impetus to the development of canistherapy in the centre, and they began to do it because it was interesting and useful. He believes this will help to solve problems:

“We have already got in touch with the Department of Social Protection, Health and Education of the Brest Regional Executive Committee. Then we will go to the state level. It is important for us to be able to hire a dog handler who keeps dogs,” he explains. “You have to understand that Jackie and Bjorn work so well with the children because they obey their owner, Svetlana. In canistherapy, a dog handler and a defectologist work with the child.”

The doctor says that the results of this work have been noticeable as the overall condition of the children improves:

“We use therapy throughout other rehabilitation procedures, and it has a very good effect: children become relaxed, they communicate much better with specialists and carry out other tasks better as well. Interaction with animals brings a positive result, although initially not all children have a good experience with animals.”

Tactile stimulation, talking to a dog, everything bears fruit. It happens with autistic children, for example; in some cases, a child cannot communicate with people at all, but communicates perfectly with a dog:

“There are children who can look into the eyes of a dog, but cannot look into the eyes of a human. According to the experience of European countries, I know what has happened in the past when children with autism have communicated with a person through a dog. The children would not talk to people, but started talking to the dog. And that way, they began to tell them all their problems and needs.”

Author: Yelena Spasyuk

Article published in Russian language by Naviny.by