They say dogs are man’s best friends. Indeed, they play many roles in human society, from simply being pets to serving as guards, finding drugs and bombs, tracking fugitives and lost people, and helping the blind navigate their surroundings. And in war-torn Uganda, dogs are now lending a helping paw to traumatized war veterans as instruments of healing.
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Like many people in Uganda, Charles Watmon has difficulty living with the things he saw and did as a soldier. An unexpected friend now helps him shoulder the burden. That friend’s name is Ogen Rwot and she is a cute, friendly, caramel-colored dog.
For a decade, Watmon fought on both sides of Uganda’s civil wars, first for the Lord’s Resistance Army, then for the Ugandan government. The experience was traumatic. To make matters worse, he learned that he was HIV positive toward the end of his time in the military, and soon lost his wife and his two children to AIDS. After the war ended, he suffered flashbacks and panic attacks. He even thought about suicide.
Then he met Ogen Rwot, whose name means “Trust in the Lord.” She is a therapy dog, but Watmon sees her as more of a sister.
She came to him from the Comfort Dog Project in northern Uganda where 7 out of every 10 people have been traumatically affected by war. The project is the brainchild of Francis Okello Oloya. Oloya was blinded for life when, at 12 years of age, he hit an unexploded bomb with his garden hoe, sending pieces of wood and metal into his eyes.
He attended a boarding school where he had difficulty with many things. He especially hated having to ask his peers for help doing simple things like visiting the bathroom. That’s why he was so grateful when, in a miraculous turn of events, the school’s guard dogs began leading him to the bathroom instead. He formed a strong bond with them and now wants to help others in the war-torn area to do the same.
Service dogs are common in many countries, but in Uganda, the animals are primarily used as guards. Most people fear dogs and would never invite a dog to sleep in their bed like Watmon does. They are seldom kept as pets, and almost never used for therapy. Watmon is one of a small but growing number of Ugandans who are being healed by these therapy dogs.
According to research, dogs are good for our health. One study found that people over 65 who have a dog as a pet visit the doctor 30 percent less often than those who do not. Dogs also have been shown to reduce depression, PTSD symptoms, and anxiety. Another study found that dogs and humans merely looking into each other’s eyes caused the level of oxytocin, the “feel-good hormone”, to rise. And it didn’t just rise in the human research subjects. The dogs also showed higher levels of oxytocin, which suggests the healing relationship between dogs and humans is a two-way street.