Dogs help children in Ukraine to cope with stress
Amid the ongoing war, emotional support classes featuring dogs are helping children to overcome stress at a Spilno Child Spot in Kharkiv
Today, five-year-old sisters Eva and Milana have an appointment with their therapist at a metro station in Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine. The therapist is just nine years old and her name is Julie. She is a golden retriever who has been helping children in Kharkiv overcome stress since the beginning of the full-scale war.
As soon as Eva extends her hand in greeting, Julie places a paw in her palm, immediately recognising her as a friend. In today’s appointment lasting around an hour, the girls will learn to interact with dogs, feed them, teach them tricks and simply have fun together.
For a whole hour, Peremoha metro station is so full of laughter, chattering and barking that the children cannot hear the explosions outside.
Canine-assisted therapy classes like these are held twice a week at the Spilno Child Spots, which are run at Kharkiv metro stations by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The classes are free of charge and available to all children.
Trainer and volunteer Natalia and her two dogs, Julie the retriever and Petra the English setter, have been running the classes for a year and a half, helping children to feel positive, overcome their fears and forget about the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Helping to children to heal
Eva and Milana arrived in Kharkiv with their parents after fleeing Kherson, where intense fighting is taking place. The girls have cats and a dog back home.
Eva misses her pets and loves to spend time with the animals at the Spilno Child Spot.
"The dog's name is Snizhok (‘snowball’) because he is snow-white and fluffy,” she says, sadly.
The dogs here have undergone training in canine therapy and emotional support in order to interact with children. They are patient, intelligent and love to play.
"Therapy is usually a very long process,” says trainer Natalia. “But these classes are a quick way for a child to feel positive emotions, relax and communicate in a safe environment.”
The Spilno Child Spot is among the few places in Kharkiv where children can forget about the war. Now, during air raids, they do not have to interrupt their classes and games to go down to the shelter and almost do not hear the sounds of sirens and explosions.
Finding safety underground
Recently, the fighting in Kharkiv has become intense again. Air raid sirens sound several times a day and each time it causes stress for children, who desperately need a safe place to shelter. Last night, Victoria and her seven-year-old daughter Adelina barely slept.
"There was huge shelling at night,” says Victoria, who did not hesitate to come to the Spilno Child Spot today.
“In the morning, we heard loud explosions too. I wanted to get my daughter distracted from this nightmare. I wanted her to be safe and feel relaxed.”
Spilno Child Spots have been operating in Kharkiv’s metro since last winter. They serve as a bomb shelter, but also as a place for games and learning, and sometimes as a home. Even during shelling and blackouts, there are always lights and hot tea, as well as the chance to warm up, charge mobile phones and have fun.
Staff at the Spilno Spot in Peremoha metro station say there are always more children here when shelling takes place in Kharkiv. Today, one corner of the space alone has managed to welcome almost a hundred children.
The Spilno Spot has helped Adelina finally calm down after a sleepless night. The dogs, who lie down on their backs and roll over on command, occupy her attention.
"Today, there was a class with dogs, I liked it very very much,” says Adelina, happily. “They were very very fun and playful. They know many commands and are very friendly. They gave me their paws.”
Overcoming stress and sadness
Trainer Natalia has lived in Kharkiv since the very first days of the full-scale war. While hiding in the metro with her family, she noticed how depressed the children around her were. She then came up with the idea to organise dog classes as therapy.
"The first class was difficult both for me and my dogs,” she recalls. “Severe shelling occurred and there were a lot of frightened children. The air in the metro felt heavy because of so much tension. Our dogs were so tired that my husband and I just took the dogs out after the lesson in our arms. But the children came and thanked us for distracting them from the war.”
Later, Natalia joined the Spilno Child Spot team as a volunteer and started to run regular classes.
"Different children come to us – those who are afraid of dogs, those with health or developmental disorders, and those who are psychologically traumatized by the war,” she says. “Some children miss the pets that they lost. And they are happy to communicate with animals. These dogs are emotional support dogs.”
After Natalia's classes, many children – even those who were once afraid of dogs – ask their parents for pets. Natalia says it proves that canine therapy has a positive impact on children.
When it is time for today’s class to end, Adelina says goodbye to the dogs separately, stroking their soft ears. For her, this Sunday was no longer the day when Kharkiv came under fire again, but the day she met Julie and Petra.
UNICEF runs 150 Spilno Child Spots across Ukraine, as well as 50 mobile spots. The centres help to connect children with child protection services (including mental health and psychosocial support), learning, first aid and referrals for additional health services, as well as helping families to register for humanitarian cash assistance.