The Healing Power of Human–Canine Bonds
Field internship takes student to Uganda to work with a human–animal intervention for war trauma survivors
When she was 13, Filda was kidnapped and forcibly recruited into the LRA rebel army in Northern Uganda, where she witnessed countless atrocities, including the torture and killing of her brothers. Like Filda, an estimated 70% of people in the region have been traumatically affected by the region’s conflict, which began in 1986 and continued for 20 years.
The Comfort Dog Project — a project of the BIG FIX Uganda — is using the healing power of dog companionship to help Filda and other war trauma survivors. “This dog saved my life,” Filda says. “If it wasn’t for him, I’d be dead.”
Recent University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work graduate Christy Janiszewski, MSW ’23, interned with the Comfort Dog Project over the last year, culminating with a journey from Denver to Gulu, Uganda, this summer to deliver veterinary supplies and assist with humane education and other programming.
Janiszewski arrived in Gulu just as a new cohort of participants was starting the 5-month psychosocial PTSD rehabilitation program — the only program of its kind in the region, which also has just one veterinary hospital. “I got to meet everyone in the cohort and got to see them be matched with their companion animals,” says Janiszewski, who worked with the program’s social worker, participated in weekly clinical meetings, explored potential partnerships for the organization, and gathered outcomes information to share with donors. “Watching people bond with their new companion animals was really special.”
Learn more in a video about Filda, her dog Lok Oroma, and the Comfort Dog Project.Watch
Janiszewski also gave a guest appearance on a local radio show, sharing information about animal-assisted interventions and how they differ in the United States and Uganda. “It was interesting because the relationships between humans and animals is perceived differently [in Uganda],” where dogs often live outside and are used for guarding, she says.
Janiszewski explains that through the program, dogs in need of homes are rehabilitated by the Comfort Dogs team, temperament tested and spayed or neutered. The dogs are then matched with war trauma survivors, who make a lifetime commitment to their dogs and participate in a weekly training program. Once they complete the program, the dog–guardian teams visit villages and schools to educate about the importance of being kind to animals, teach positive reinforcement training techniques and provide testimony about the healing power of human–canine bonds.
“The amazing thing about this program is it mutually benefits the people and also the dogs,” says Janiszewski, who earned a Global Social Work Certificate alongside her MSW with a mental health specialization. “Another amazing piece is a lot of people I met had graduated from the program but stayed involved, helping at vaccine clinics, visiting schools and talking to youth, and fostering dogs. [The program] has made a change — they’ve had really good results reducing the effects of PTSD, and people have gotten so much out of it they stay on to help others.”
Janiszewski says her international courses and internship experiences in Uganda, Kenya and Bosnia helped her to explore similarities and differences in social work practice. “I was so inspired by the creativity and commitment to community at the BIG FIX,” says Janiszewski, who plans to pursue licensure and do clinical work in a community setting, addressing issues such as trauma and the environment. “I hope I can incorporate a freshness to my practice and stay connected to people with broad perspectives — being continually challenged to keep my practice relevant and growing.”