Filda, a young Ugandan woman forced into the rebel army at the age of 13, says she has survived thanks to Lok Oroma, a service dog that has become her savior. “This dog saved my life. If it wasn’t for him, I would be dead,” Filda told the BBC.
After being abducted and kept against her will by the rebel army, Filda witnessed some of the worst atrocities imaginable, including seeing her own brother tortured and killed. When she finally managed to escape, she was suicidal and suffering from PTSD. “When I got back home, I had terrible nightmares about how my brothers were killed, and the terrible things that happened to me in captivity. But the people in the village taunted me and spoke badly about me. They called me a murderer, and said I was cursed by the spirits,” she said.
Despite nearly losing all hope, Filda found the courage to go on from an unlikely source, a service dog from the Comfort Dog Project. The group, founded in 2015 by Francise Okello Oloya, who lost his sight during a bombing in his village when he was 12 years old, provides those suffering from trauma with support dogs to help them fight depression and regain self-confidence.
Francise knew dogs had the power to help humans after being befriended by two local dogs as a child who guided him to and from school. Though most dogs in Uganda are used to herd livestock or as guard dogs, Francise understood that they were capable of much more.
The Comfort Dog Project provides a five-month therapy program that teaches future guardians to train and care for their dogs, as well as deal with their own emotions. “When I feel that moment of rage, I call him [Comfort Dog] next to me, start rubbing his back, and then I feel better. I just focus on him,” Filda says. The program does not breed dogs, instead, it relies upon rescue dogs that have been abandoned, which ensures both the owners and the dogs benefit from the exchange.
Northern Uganda, one of the poorest regions on earth, has thousands of people suffering from war trauma. For twenty years, residents endured a devastating conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government, which decimated the population and ruined the economy. During the war, the rebel army abducted children, who were forced to commit atrocities, and raped and murdered countless women and children. Following the conflict, most people had lost their homes and possessions and were forced to live in camps for more than a decade.
The Comfort Dog Project uses dogs as companions to heal war survivors. Guardians, who make a lifetime commitment to their dogs, become project ambassadors after graduating from the training program, visiting villages and schools to teach others about the importance of caring for animals and the healing power of companionship.