BOYARKA, Ukraine — Bice is an American pit bull terrier with an important and sensitive job in Ukraine: comforting war-traumatized children from Russia.
The mischievous 8-year-old gray dog arrived on time this week at a rehabilitation center on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, ready to take up duty.
As Bice waited in a hallway, inside what looked like a classroom with paintings and books, a dozen children sat around a table and listened to Oksana Sliepora, a psychologist.
“Who’s got a dog?” she asked and several hands went up at once as the space filled with cries of “Me, me, me!”.
A youngster said his dog was named Stitch; “Tank,” said another boy, adding that he had five in total, but had forgotten all their names. Everyone burst out laughing.
The seven girls and nine boys – whose ages range from a 2-year-old boy to an 18-year-old young woman – look like schoolboys enjoying the classroom at first. But they have special stories: Some have witnessed how Russian soldiers invaded their hometown and beat their loved ones. Some are sons, daughters, brothers or sisters of soldiers who are at the front or who have been killed there.
They meet at the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation, a state-run community center where people can get help coping with traumatic experiences after the Russian invasion in February. Staff members provide regular psychological therapy to anyone who has been affected in any way by the war.
In the past they have worked with horses, but now they are adding the support of another four-legged friend: canine therapy.
Located in Boyarka, a suburb about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Kyiv, the center was established in 2000 as part of an effort to provide psychological support to those affected, directly or indirectly, by the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.
Now he focuses on people affected by war. These days, with some areas without electricity after Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure, the two-story building is one of the few places with light and heat.
With the children gathered, some wearing festive blue or red Christmas hats, Sliepora hesitantly asked them if they wanted to meet anyone. Yes, they did, was the answer. The door opened. The children’s faces shone. They smiled.
And along came Bice, the tail-wagging therapist.
Darina Korozei, the pooch’s owner and trainer, asked the children to come one by one, to ask him for a ride or two. He sat down. He was standing on his hind legs. He stretched out his paw or turned around. Then a group hug – followed by some tasty treats for him.
For over 30 minutes, Bice let everyone touch and hug him, never barking. It was as if nothing else mattered at the time, as if there was nothing to worry about – like, say, a war ravaging their country.
This is the first time that Sliepora has worked with a dog as part of his therapies. But, she said, “I’ve read a lot of literature that working with dogs, with four-legged rehabilitators, helps children reduce stress, increase stress resistance, and reduce anxiety.”
The kids didn’t seem stressed, but of course the reality is still there.
She observed that some children are afraid of loud noises, such as when someone closes a window or when they hear the sound of a jet. Some drop to the ground or start asking if there’s a bomb shelter nearby.
Among the children were a brother and sister from Kupyansk, a town in the eastern region of Kharkiv, who saw Russian soldiers burst into their house with machine guns, grabbed their grandfather, put a bag over his head and beat him, Sliepora said.
“Every child is psychologically traumatized in different ways,” she said.
The mothers of some of the children sat along one of the walls most of the time, watching and listening from a distance. When the Bice arrived, some took pictures of their children.
Lesya Kucherenko was here with her 9-year-old son, Maxim. She said she couldn’t stop thinking about the war and what might happen to her eldest son, a 19-year-old paratrooper fighting in the town of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, one of the the most active fronts today.
Maxim smiled as he played with Bice, but he still watched his mother and turned his head to see her from time to time.
Kucherenko said she sometimes breaks down in tears thinking of her soldier son. Just before this session, she received a call from him. He told her he was fine, and just remembering that made her cry. The next second, Maxim was there, asking why.
“See? He comforts me — not me, him,” she said.
As for the comforting canine, what is the best message that Bice offers to children?
Owner Korozei only needs to think for a few seconds and replies, “Freedom.”
“Freedom from problems and happiness,” she adds.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine