“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”—Nelson Mandela
Jimmy, a therapy dog, volunteers at Safe Horizons, the nation’s leading victim assistance organization helping victims and their families rebuild their lives, Brooklyn Child Advocacy Center, comforting children who have been abused. What Jimmy gives the children is a safe companion, who is gentle and non-judgmental, accepting the child for who he/she is. As a physically or sexually abused child may not want to be touched by anyone, he/she may feel more comfortable in petting or hugging a dog, where this interaction makes the significant difference for that child, who otherwise would not have positive or appropriate contact, according to Safe Horizon. The positive interaction and communication with the therapy dog are the first steps in the healing process, as the children regain their lives after abuse.
To Toni Schriver, Founder of Passionate Animals Working With Survivors (PAWWS) to Heal, it is important to have a program where children who have faced abuse, or those with disabilities, heal with the help of animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Animals aren’t judgmental, where people are; the animal just accepts, where there is an “unspoken trust, patience, and lack of them judging you despite your pain.” Animals are also intuitive, where “they just know what to do.”
PAWWS to Heal offers AAT and animal-assisted activity to children healing from abuse, as well as helping children cope with physical disabilities, using the interaction of specially-trained therapy animals as a “healing tool for children to work through emotional, physical and behavioral problems.” PAWWS to Heal holds the belief that the interactive therapy with animals helps strengthen and improve the lives of children through their journey in healing from abuse and coping with physical disabilities.
Schriver established PAWWS in 2004, inspired from her own experiences as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Schriver, struggling to cope with the daily pain, anger, and distrust, found “only true comfort… was with animals” as their unconditional love, compassion, and patience saved her life. Schriver knew that the use of AAT and animal assisted activity was the best way to help children cope, as well as creating and achieving positive goals for children overcoming the emotional and behavioral traumas from abuse.
The first child PAWWS to Heal helped was Madison, who has Rett Syndrome. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Rett Syndrome is a genetic, neurodevelopmental disorder which affects females almost exclusively, caused by the mutation of the methyl CpG binding protein 2 (MECP2), which instructs the synthesis of methyl cytosine binding protein 2 (MeCP2), required for brain development. The syndrome is characterized by normal early growth and development, followed by a slowing of development, with a loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability. Apraxia, the inability to perform motor functions, is “perhaps the most severely disabling feature… interfering with every body movement, including eye gaze and speech,” where children often exhibit properties of autism in the early stages. As Schriver continues, progressively during Madison’s sessions, Madison would acknowledge there was another being in her presence, where she would focus briefly, eventually making contact with the dog. After an hour, Madison was mentally connected with her parents for a few moments, before reverting back.
Jillian from PAWWS
Jillian is a shepherd/cross born August 12, 2009. Her goal is to warm every heart she touches. Jilly learned under her mentor, Roxy. Jillian's nickname is Silly Jilly. PAWWS to Heal offers trust, support, encouragement, patience and unconditional love from animals for children to begin healing from physical and sexual abuse, emotional and behavioral trauma and to help cope with physical disabilities. PAWWS is also a 501(C) 3 non-profit organization dedicated to children and animals. Through interactive animal therapy and animal assisted activity, our services strengthen and improve the lives of children as they continue their journey of healing. | Photo: PAWWS | Link |
For Schriver, Davion was the child who affected her the most. Schriver first began working with Davion when he was seven. Initially, Davion was shy, would not make eye contact, spoke very little, and was withdrawn. Schriver ensured their sessions were consistent every week, where the sessions were neither perceived as a reward or a punishment. Progressively, Davion began to open with emotion, he was communicating and speaking. Schriver “didn’t want to give up on him,” as she didn’t want to lose the momentum (and resulting progress). “Davion is a really good kid, considering his situation.”
Therapy is not limited to children who have been abused. Dylan, a one-year-and-five-month-old, 70-pound, rescued Rottie mix. Dylan’s previous life was with an abusive man, his wife, and child, who beat Dylan as a puppy. When Dylan was surrendered to a rescue, he was fearful, particularly of men, and skeptical of people in general. Within the five months Dylan lived with Schriver, she was able to help him trust and reestablish his boundaries.
As Dylan had never been left unattended in a house, in efforts to crate-train Dylan, Schriver would coax Dylan into the crate with treats. Schriver would get into bed for the night, and within two minutes, Dylan began whining in the crate. Schriver knew she couldn’t leave Dylan in the crate; after laying down with her, Dylan was never in the crate again. Dylan also never used the bathroom in the house.
To facilitate trust for Dylan, Schriver would give her neighbors treats to give to Dylan; Dylan would then allow the neighbors to touch him. One particular neighbor, a big guy, always had treats; once Dylan heard this neighbor’s motorcycle, he would run over to him to get a treat. Within five months, “Dylan has come a long way in trust issues [where it is] amazing what a little TLC will do.”
Dylan has been able to apply what he has learned with the children he has been helping. In a way, he is learning and healing with the child; where one child has some issues, she has to take it slow with him, as he is also still learning. The child can be secure with herself, as she can learn through the behavior of Dylan. Dylan can become more socialized with people, therefore gaining more confidence, as he learns that he won’t get hurt, and no one will hurt him, as he builds up his trust level. Dylan is a “sweet dog, he just gets nervous [and] is unsure.”
As Dylan has learned to reestablish his boundaries, it can be applied during his sessions with the children, teaching them to reestablish their boundaries. Many times, abused children will lose their boundaries, evidence through acting out, fighting, screaming. AAT helps the child learn alternatives, such as walking away. In learning from the animal, the children can apply it to their own lives in how to interact with other children, or their siblings. The same methods can be applied for children with disabilities, as they have high emotional anxiety, perhaps frustration, originating from children in their peer group not understanding their situation. Animals also get the children to engage, leaning against them.
To Schriver, what is so important about AAT is that “we can really value the message animals give us.” An animal can be abused beyond measure, but that animal will continue to be loyal, as they inherently have an unyielding trust and unconditional love. Schriver believes people can truly learn from the nature of these animals, in having compassion, unconditional love, patience, and trust for one another, treating everyone with respect.
What is imperative is to listen and reach out, offering help for any child who has a disability, or who has been abused, observes Schriver. We “need to be more proactive… talking with them, taking the time to help these kids.” Being proactive also includes researching in how to initiate getting the child help, perhaps volunteering, as so many organizations are in need of volunteers. For every case of abuse we hear about, there are three-four cases we don’t.
To learn more, please visit: Pawwstoheal.org