New therapy programme uses dogs

An new therapy programme uses dogs to help abused children heal from trauma.

The programme was recently announce by the Teddy Bear foundation (previously a Teddy Bear clinic).

The innovative Canine Assisted Therapy programme is an extension of the organisation’s lauded Court Preparation programme, which helps victims overcome their fears and prepares them to testify in court against their abusers.

Spokesperson Mbalenhle Ngema said the Teddy Bear foundation worked with young children who were victims of abuse.

She said its vision was to prevent child abuse, provide efficient and professional services that effectively promoted healing for abused children and stop any further abuse.

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The foundation’s clinical director Doctor Shaheeda Omar said the foundation was constantly developing and experimenting with methods that would best help victims deal with trauma and further rehabilitate them.

This innovative approach led to the initiation of the Canine Assisted Therapy programme in which trained dogs assume the role of the various players in court.

“Children and their families who make use of the Teddy Bear foundation’s services are usually fearful of the criminal justice system. Their perceptions of trust are challenged,” said Omar.

“The thought of seeing the perpetrator face-to-face again as well as the fear of the unknown creeps into their lives creating further trauma, which often renders them powerless in helping bring the abusers to justice.”

Ngema said during the therapy sessions, the dogs were placed in designated roles that would be found in a courtroom, like a judge or the attorneys.

“The dogs are dressed in uniforms of the role they are filling as this creates familiarity for the child,” said Ngema.

She said this form of therapy was the only one in South Africa and there had already been a number of success stories.

“Overcoming their [children’s] fear of dogs by understanding that not all dogs bite helps them understand that equally not all adults are going to hurt them,” Omar said.

“This breaks down the misconceptions and focuses on the issues of trust.”

The programme has been put to the test from 2015 after the Top Dog organisation joined forces with the Teddy Bear foundation.

Ngema said the original purpose was for the children to be able to overcome their fear of the unknown and build a relationship of ease and trust with the dogs.

“It was then found that just like how children became familiar with the dogs and began trusting them, equally we could use dogs to make children trust the court system and its role players,” said Omar.

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Ngema said this journey began when Conor Hughes, a representative of Top Dogs, initiated contact with the Teddy Bear clinic in 2015.

“Hughes expressed interest in wanting to provide the dogs as calming or therapeutic mechanisms for the children,” she said.

Ngema said the experiment proved to be so successful that Omar resolved that more could be drawn and achieved from this experiment.

“Further research into animal assisted therapy found that Canada was already using a canine assisted programme.”

Ngema said all the dog handlers were given training with regards to the psychology and needs of the children in this programme.

“A workshop was then conducted to design a programme that would be conducive and effective to the needs of the court preparation programme.”

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Kayla van Petegem

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