Ukraine deploys therapy dog services for kids experiencing war trauma to reduce stress, anxiety

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Kids in Ukraine have had a very rough year ever since Russia invaded the country in February 2022.

Many of Ukraine’s children have been uprooted from their homes and separated from their families — and there’s been a push by many to help comfort traumatized children.

Most recently, these efforts have appeared in the form of dog therapy.

UKRAINE'S REFUGEE CHILDREN: AMID THE WAR, HOW TO HELP KIDS SUFFERING FROM TRAUMA

The Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka, Ukraine, brought in an eight-year-old dog on Dec. 7, 2022, to spread joy to the center’s kids, the Associated Press reported.

Bice, a playful dog with an important job, instantly brought smiles to the children’s faces as he walked into the room.

Children traumatized by war play with American Pit Bull Terrier "Bice" in the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka, near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

The dog’s owner, Darina Kokozei, invited each child to step up and ask Bice to do a few tricks.

Obedient Bice sat, stood on his hind legs, rolled over and gave his paw to the kids for treats.

FOR UKRAINE'S KIDS, A THERAPY DOG CAN HELP EASE TRAUMA AND SUFFERING

He withstood 30 minutes of hugs and pets from the children without ever making a sound, helping to distract the kids from their fears of war.

The group of 16 youths, ranging in age from two to 18 years old, have all experienced war trauma — some witnessing Russian soldiers invading their hometowns and even beating their relatives.

A boy poses for a photo with American Pit Bull Terrier "Bice" in the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. 

A boy poses for a photo with American Pit Bull Terrier "Bice" in the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.  (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

Some students have family members on the frontlines — or, their family members have been killed in service.

The state-operated community center has been a resource for people coping with trauma since Russia’s invasion in February, the AP reported.

SERVICE DOGS HELPING VETERANS AND CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES

Staffers such as psychologist Oksana Sliepova provide regular psychological therapy for those impacted.

Even though the center has worked with horses in the past, Sliepova told the AP that this was her first time experiencing canine therapy.

Children traumatized by the war in Ukraine draw in the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.

Children traumatized by the war in Ukraine draw in the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

"I read a lot of literature that working with dogs, with four-legged rehabilitators, helps children reduce stress, increase stress resistance and reduce anxiety," she said.

Sliepova shared that many of the children are terrified of loud noises ever since the invasion.

UKRAINIAN REFUGEE CHILDREN FACING DISORIENTATION, EXPLOITATION DURING DANGEROUS TREK FROM HOME

Even the sound of a window closing or a jet overhead may cause a child to drop to the floor and ask for the nearest bomb shelter location.

But Bice’s presence seemed to melt away all war-stricken anxieties, as the dog offered a moment of "freedom" for the kids, Kokozei told the AP.

Children traumatized by the war pose for a photo with American Pit Bull Terrier "Bice" in the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.

Children traumatized by the war pose for a photo with American Pit Bull Terrier "Bice" in the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Boyarka near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko)

In an interview with Fox News Digital, Verywell Mind editor-in-chief and licensed psychotherapist Amy Morin stressed the benefits that dog therapy can have in terms of releasing stress and anxiety.

"Therapy is a wonderful thing, especially for somebody who is going through something traumatizing," she said.

"It reduces our cortisol levels [and] gives us a quick break in some of the anxiety and stress that we feel."

She said of others under severe stress, "Once they get a little bit of a break from the extreme stress or the horrible anxiety that they're under, they might be able to see themselves as a hero that emerges from the story rather than a horrible victim."

EXPLAINING WAR TO KIDS AS RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE

The Florida-based Morin said that introducing dogs into therapy is a great idea, especially for children who immediately "laugh, smile and find joy" at the animals' presence.

The expert explained that it also helps kids who are facing trauma cope with their emotions.

A little girl hugs a dog in this photo. "Sometimes kids just don't have the language. They don't have the words to describe what they've just been through," one expert said. 

A little girl hugs a dog in this photo. "Sometimes kids just don't have the language. They don't have the words to describe what they've just been through," one expert said.  (iStock)

"Kids work really hard to manage their emotions when they're around a pet," she said. "So they know, ‘If I am calm, then the dog is calm,’ or, 'If I'm excited, the dog gets excited.'"

"So often for kids, it's an easy way for them to figure out, ‘OK, how do I need to regulate my emotions right now?’ And that's a skill that we want them to have when they're not working with the dogs, too."

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As long as the kids are physically safe, said Morin, this kind of pet therapy can "certainly help" in serious circumstances such as war.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the language. They don't have the words to describe what they've just been through," she said.

A happy boy embraces a Golden retriever. As long as the kids are physically safe, said one expert, pet therapy can "certainly help" in serious circumstances such as war.

A happy boy embraces a Golden retriever. As long as the kids are physically safe, said one expert, pet therapy can "certainly help" in serious circumstances such as war. (iStock)

"So to be able to get a break, [playing] with a dog and [being] a kid for a few minutes is super important for their mental health."

The Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation is located about 12 miles southwest of Kyiv.

It was originally founded in 2000 to provide support after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.

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Now, the center also doubles as a shelter that provides stable lighting and heat after Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Angelica Stabile is a lifestyle writer for Fox News Digital.

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