Hero's Companion: Canadian-led project uses dogs to combat mental health stigma in war-torn Ukraine

When conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine, the country wasn't prepared for battle. But even fewer were ready for the psychological wounds of war. Now a Canadian-led initiative is trying to help rehabilitate veterans with PTSD using canine therapy.

'There are no doctors to treat PTSD in hospitals, only volunteer organizations.'

Kalyna Kardash is shown with Kora, a British golden retriever in training to become a service dog to assist wounded soldiers in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Kardash spearheaded a mental-health rehabilitation project called Hero's Companion. (Sami Siva)

When conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine two years ago, reservist Volodmir Olegovich was called up to fight the pro-Russian rebels on the front lines.

The 48-year-old psychologist and father of three wasn't alone.

Thousands of ordinary Ukrainians, men and women, attended crash courses in combat techniques, raised money for their own uniforms and weapons, and went to fight in the country's Donbass region.

But very few were prepared for the psychological wounds of war.

Now a Canadian-led initiative called Hero's Companion is trying to help, using therapy dogs to rehabilitate wounded soldiers returning from war.

The project was launched last August by Kalyna Kardash, a Ukrainian-Canadian journalist living in Toronto.

Kalyna Kardash trains Kora by speaking to the retriever in Ukrainian. (Sami Siva)

"There is no assistance provided to the wounded soldiers returning from the front lines," Kardash says. "General preparedness is low and the knowledge of veteran affairs is low."

Kardash has travelled to Ukraine in recent years as an election observer and volunteer. She was inspired to launch Hero's Companion when, during these trips, she came across photographs of soldiers adopting cats and dogs that had been abandoned due to the fighting.

Kardash was also drew the idea from a YouTube video, in which a dog was used to rehabilitate an injured child.

Hero's Companion has 10 certified therapy dogs, which visit the hospitals where wounded soldiers are being rehabilitated. Another five dogs are currently in training to become service dogs, and each will eventually be attached to a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Canine therapy offers a range of benefits, from relieving stress and elevating mood, to increasing physical activity and improving communication skills. Pets can also reduce feelings of loneliness and enhance a patient's sense of purpose.

Kardash herself is training 14-month-old Kora, speaking to the British Golden Retriever in Ukrainian.

After completing their day jobs, youth get ready to train in combat tactics in June 2014. Volunteer soldiers, usually group of friends, self-finance their military uniforms and equipment. These men did not have any form of mental-health training before going to the front lines. (Sami Siva)

Hero's Companion was modelled after a similar program for Canadian veterans, Courageous Companions, which has trained 250 service dogs.

"A service dog can help a veteran as a companion on a physical and psychological level," says Dave Blackburn, a retired major with Canada's Armed Forces and vice-chair of Courageous Companions.

"For example, if a veteran has nightmares, the service dog is trained to sense that and wake him or her from sleep."   

Blackburn, along with Kardash, travelled to Ukraine last year to speak about veteran rehabilitation at a government-organized conference.

Social stigma prevents many Ukrainian veterans from seeking help. Most forms of mental-health treatment were forbidden in the country until 1991.

"Men must not complain," says Olegovich, now a volunteer with Hero's Companion. He provides soldiers with counselling and uses his own service dog, Gera, for canine therapy.

A tree used for target practice is shown in June 2014 in a forest outside of Kyiv, where volunteer soldiers received combat training. (Sami Siva)

Olegovich is also a trained soldier. Like many men of his generation, he served as a conscript in the Soviet army and was posted in East Germany, training to combat Western aggression.

But that experience was very different from where he found himself more than two decades later, on the front lines, fighting what he calls his "Slavic brothers."

When the "little green men" — Russian soldiers — appeared on the streets of Simferopol in Crimea, very few expected the so-called hybrid war that broke out in eastern Ukraine. In addition to conventional tactics, the conflict involves insurgency, disinformation campaigns and economic coercion.

Olegovich's unit came under grenade attack that left him with shrapnel wounds.

He was lucky: Prior to enlisting in March 2014, Olegovich was aware of the potential trauma he might face. And he and his wife, also a psychologist, knew how to deal with PTSD.

But families of soldiers with little to no understanding of mental-health issues have ended up disintegrating.

Nikolai Andrievsky, 28, shown here in his tent in Maidan, Ukraine, volunteered to go to the front line to offer first-aid assistance. (Sami Siva)

Euromaidan activist Nikolai Andrievsky, 28, volunteered to go to the front lines in Donbass to provide first-aid assistance. Now any loud noise — such New Year's Eve fireworks — puts him on the floor.

"There are no doctors to treat PTSD in hospitals, only volunteer organizations," says Andrievsky.

Friends who also have been to the front "wake up in the middle of a night and shoot into the air with an empty hand, or hide under the bed," he adds. "Their wives do not know what to do."

Anne Speckhard, who teaches psychiatry at Washington's Georgetown University, says the Ukrainian army employs military psychologists — but they're only made available to full-time military members.

"The people who join what we … would call the reserve forces are not served by them," she says. "So they rely on local social workers who are not well-trained and equipped to deal with military."

Last year, Speckhard helped train social workers dealing with Ukraine's soldiers and refugees, working alongside the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE).

A group of volunteer soldiers are shown during June 2014 training, using dummy rifles in a forest outside of Kyiv. After their 10-day training program, they went to the front line. (Sami Siva)

Since the conflict in the country's east broke out, more than 9,000 people have been killed and the Ukrainian armed forces have grown to roughly 250,000 troops.

Kardash's hope is that Hero's Companion will ultimately help circumvent the stigma in Ukrainian society where someone with mental illness tends to be branded as an "unstable person" or "crazy."

"There are many phases in the history of Ukraine. But [the Euromaidan movement] was Ukraine's modern re-awakening, the nation's rebirth," she says.

Sami Siva is a photojournalist based in Europe and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter here.


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