FORT GORDON, Ga. -- Man’s best friend is helping survivors of sexual trauma get through the healing and recovery process. This past March the Cyber Protection Brigade (CPB) Civilian Victim Advocate Mrs. Wendy King Sprools, at Fort Gordon began using her dog Rosie in a therapeutic role.
“The CPB Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program is all about thinking outside the box in creating the best approaches in dealing with sexual trauma. We want to assist our clients thru their journey of recovery from being a victim, to survivor to potentially becoming a thriving individual once again,” said Sprools.
Service dogs originally trained to aid wounded veterans have gained popularity in the United States over the course of the past century. They are used in hospitals, are provided for individuals with disabilities to provide physical assistance and emotional support but not for Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
“MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health condition, and as with other forms of trauma, there are a variety of reactions that someone can have in response to MST.”
“The type, severity, and duration of an individual’s difficulties will all vary based on factors like whether they have a prior history of trauma, the types of responses they received from others at the time of the MST, and whether the MST happened once or was repeated over time,” said Sprools.
“MST survivors are not eligible for these types of service dogs by the Department of Veterans Affairs, (VA). Therefore, we have brought in Rosie. She is a fun loving Golden Doddle that not only provides one on one assistance in the SHARP Program but also attends unit events which helps lift morale among the members of the command.”
“We are spearheading the use of a therapy animal in the Sexual Harassment Assault Response Program in hopes to gain awareness of the benefits and potentially have this program become a part of other bases around the world to help MST clients in their recovery journey,” said Sprools.
According to Sprools therapy dogs like Rosie can provide emotional support as well as many practical forms of assistance to survivors of sexual abuse.
“People will come up to her to pet, hug and play with her and you can instantly see the smile on the person’s face. Petting animals releases endorphins, which in turn creates happy feelings. That is why these types of animals are used in hospitals or facilities among the community.”
“Rosie can provide physical support by laying close to the individual, this provides a form of protection by sitting close to the client so they can feel as relaxed as possible. This in turn allows petting which helps release endorphins which in turns leads to feelings of happiness,” said Sprools.
An article entitled, ‘Therapy Dogs: All About Canine Companions for Survivors of Abuse,’ published on The Dog People website gives credence to the success of therapy dogs, who are used for sexual trauma. According to the article; “data suggests that interacting with dogs increases oxytocin and dopamine, and decreases cortisol, the stress hormone.”
Likewise the article points out that dog owners in general are “happier and healthier than the population at large, and few would be surprised to know of the scientific evidence to these effects. However, the extensive training that service dogs undergo to aid abuse survivors may increase these neurochemical and emotional benefits many times over.”
Sprools explains how Rosie’s therapeutic presence actually interfaces with her human survivor counterparts as part of the sexual trauma healing process.
She says “hugging and comforting is a natural emotion humans want to provide. However, with Sexual Assault, touching is something we avoid because we need to offer a safe place and allow individuals to process.”
“Touch can re-trigger an individual and then the process can be hindered. Rosie can provide that support in a way that a human cannot in these experiences,” said Sprools.
“I have had individuals come in and just sit with her. Survivors typically come in, sit on the couch and Rosie often pushes the person’s hand up [motioning] to have them pet her. She will lay her whole body as close as possible to the individual as this becomes a ‘calming presence,’ which gives the survivor a sense of peace.
In addition, to the therapeutic duties Rosie typically carries out she also provides morale support to her unit. Sprools reiterates that Rosie’s presence alone has made a tremendous difference among Soldiers and Civilians assigned to the CPB. In addition to assisting patients through the healing process, Rosie is present at many organizational venues, partaking in the everyday duties of the CPB.
“I feel the morale has been very positive since so many people look forward to having Rosie in meetings, trainings and briefings.”
“For example, during training, Rosie goes around and greets everyone in the room. Soldiers, especially new arrivals to Fort Gordon, tend to gravitate towards Rosie. They immediately want to pet or play and engage her,” said Sprools.
“Rosie loves attention just as much as she loves providing it to others. Rosie can sense when someone ‘needs’ her close to them and will lay next to them or push their hand up in the motion to have the person pet her head.”
Military personnel serving in the CPB alongside Rosie have also benefited from her unconditional loyalty and affection. According to Staff Sgt. Nicholas J. Miravalle, Cyber Operations Supervisor, having a therapy dog can help all parties involved with the healing process.
“Therapy dogs like Rosie can help to reduce stress and anxiety, which can act as a benefit to both advocate and victim. The calming influence of trained therapy dogs’ functions as a force multiplier in our collective efforts to provide a safer environment for victim advocacy,” said Miravalle.
Sprools can attest to the importance of therapy dogs based on her experiences and observations throughout the years.
“I truly believe in animal therapy. My background is in counseling and I have seen the benefits first hand with individuals. This idea of incorporating a Therapy Animal has been something I have been passionate about for years. Now with the support of CPB Command Team, we have put this concept into motion,” said Sprools.
Stacy Picciano the Network Enterprise Technology Command, (NETCOM) SHARP Program Manager echoed Sprools’ remarks on the importance of therapy dogs like Rosie.
“Any initiative that helps Victims/Survivors of sexual assault to feel more comfortable to tell their story, or begin their journey to heal from their traumatic ordeal is a success. Therapy Dogs can assist by providing emotional support and helping improve mental health.”
“Additionally, a therapy dog may decrease the risk of a victim/survivor from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When Soldiers are sexually assaulted, it takes time to heal and get back on their feet. If a Therapy Dog can assist with their recovery, that’s a very good thing,” said Picciano.
“Our hopes are to see positive change in relationships, morale, and client services,” added Sprools.
However, just having an assigned Therapy Dog is not the final means to an end; like all things in the Army, training is often required to sustain a skillset according to Sprools. And Rosie’s readiness posture is held in high regard with the canine attending training and certifications just like the Soldiers and Civilians she helps.
“Rosie has her Canine Good Citizen Training Certificate of completion. She has had more trainings and will be taking the Canine Therapy Dog test soon,” said Sprools.
Ultimately, Sprools commends her leadership for allowing her to bring Rosie to the CPB to interact with survivors of sexual trauma as she hopes this initiative will catch across military installations around the world.
“I just really want to thank the support of the CPB Command Team in allowing me the opportunity to try to implement something new. Their trust in my ideas is something I treasure because we are all in this together.”
“We are spearheading the use of a therapy dog within the CPB SHARP program in hopes of gaining awareness as to the benefits and potentially having this program become a part of other bases around the world to help MST clients during their journey to recovery,” said Sprools.