A new program pairing child-abuse victims with dogs helps with healing | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


A new program pairing child-abuse victims with dogs helps with healing

“One of the things we know from the research is when kids are around dogs and they have that interaction, it increases the chemical in the brain called oxytocin.”


Tammi Potts training Gryffin at Center for Victims - CP PHOTO BY JORDAN MILLER
  • CP photo by Jordan Miller
  • Tammi Potts training Gryffin at Center for Victims

Editor’s note: The name of the child in this story has been changed to protect her identity.

When 5-year-old Jamie first began attending therapy sessions at the Center for Victims, her therapist says, she suffered from low self-esteem and disobedience. Jamie had been sexually abused and had few coping skills to manage the emotional experiences she’d gone through.

“[Jamie] presented with trauma symptoms of hypervigilance, avoidance of use of language to describe thoughts, emotions and experiences,” says therapist Megan Cook. “She had little awareness of personal space for self or others, engaged in repetitive traumatic play in session with themes of self-blame, guilt, confusion and a general sense of being in and causing trouble.”  

But then Jamie met Gryffin, a 10-year-old German shepherd serving as a “canine advocate” at the Center for Victims, a victim-services and advocacy organization. Jamie’s parents gave permission to include Gryffin in their daughter’s therapy session, and they quickly saw a change in her behavior.

“Having Gryffin available to her has had such a positive impact,” said Jamie’s mother. “He has helped her self-esteem so much.”

Gryffin is part of a new program launched in February at the Center for Victims and the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) at UPMC’s Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. The program is in partnership with Pups Providing Hope, a nonprofit aimed at providing service agencies and the courts with access to trained dogs and handlers in order to bring comfort to victims of violent crimes and other traumatic events. 

The program, believed to be the only one of its kind in the country, is designed for canines to follow children and their families through the various processes involved in child-abuse cases, from the investigation into prosecution, and throughout trauma treatment. Gryffin began working with children in April.

“One of the things we wanted to do for Pennsylvania crime victims is expand our services to help people heal from the negative experiences they have,” says Tracey Provident, chief program officer at Center for Victims. “These dogs will stay with a child throughout the process they are enduring as victims of child abuse. Through all the systems they have to interact with, they will have that consistency.”

Children are introduced to Gryffin in the waiting room prior to a therapy session at Center for Victims or the forensic interview at the CAC. Potts checks to make sure the children don’t have any allergies that could be aggravated by interacting with Gryffin, and ensures the children aren’t afraid of dogs.

The children then walk Gryffin, learning how to clip and unclip his leash. They also learn how to give simple commands like “sit,” “shake” and “lie down.” After each session, the kids are allowed to play with Gryffin to release any built-up tension.

“It gives them focus. It gives them something to do and it calms them down,” says Tammi Potts, Gryffin’s owner and the canine-assisted advocate at the Center for Victims. “The dogs are so calm that when the kids are escalating up, the dog brings them back down. And if you have a child that’s not responding well, they don’t want to speak or interact, what we do is we use it as an ice-breaker and an empowerment tool for the kid.”

During the session, Gryffin serves as a source of comfort for the children. In forensic interviews, children are asked to recount the abuse they experienced. The interview can be traumatic.

“He’ll check in with the child every so often and if they need him, he’ll interact with them,” says Potts. “They can reach down and pet him. Sometimes they’ll get down and sit with him on the floor.”

Potts has been a dog trainer for more than two decades. She’s trained canines to be therapy dogs and work in nursing homes, but Gryffin’s training has been far more extensive. 

To make a dog suitable for what we’re doing you need a dog who’s bomb-proof,” says Potts. “They have to be able to handle pretty much anything. I had a kid drop a bucket of crayons next to his head. You just don’t know what the children are going to do, so you have to be prepared for anything.”

Debbie McManus, Center for Victims grants and contracts manager, with Gryffin - CP PHOTO BY JORDAN MILLER
  • CP photo by Jordan Miller
  • Debbie McManus, Center for Victims grants and contracts manager, with Gryffin
One child in a recent therapy session was fixated on Gryffin’s whiskers. Despite the discomfort that all the pulling on his whiskers might have caused, Potts says Gryffin tolerated it for a while before calmly sighing and turning his head.

“Rather than reacting or responding in an inappropriate way, he knows how to respond in a way that is gentle for the child,” says Potts. “He didn’t upset her. He didn’t interrupt the process. He’s trained all his life for this.” 

As part of the Pups Providing Hope program, inmates at the State Correctional Institution-Forest have been tasked with training additional dogs for service. In order to participate in the program, an inmate’s behavior and interactions with other inmates and correction officers is evaluated. A pair of inmates is then assigned a dog from an animal shelter or foster program for intensive obedience training.

“I did a training with the inmates on trauma and the importance of what they’re doing and how it helps our victims here,” says Cindy Snyder, clinical director of the Center for Victims. “They were, without exception, excited about being able to give back to victims, and also excited that they were potentially helping to put people in jail.”

Six dogs are being trained right now, and a poodle named Cooper has been identified to begin working with children in July. Dogs that don’t end up meeting the requirements to work with children can go on to serve as emotional-support dogs in other settings or return to shelters, where they will be easier to adopt. 

“The rigors we put the dogs through in training are closer to what you’d see with a service dog,” says Potts. “We train for many things that therapy dogs do not go through.”

But despite the extensive training, canine advocates are limited in the amount of sessions they can do in a day. 

“The dog absorbs all of those emotions, so he can only do one or two sessions a day, depending on what the level of emotion is and how long that interview is,” says Potts. “Occasionally we’ll go from the CAC interview over to the hospital and do their medical interview with them as well.”

While the sessions take their toll on the canines, the aid they provide to children going through the legal process is invaluable in ensuring child abusers are convicted.

“One of the things we know from the research is when kids are around dogs and they have that interaction, it increases the chemical in the brain called oxytocin,” says Snyder. “And that happens to be the hormone that helps kids get connected to other people, it helps kids manage their stress, it helps make them less nervous and less anxious.

“If the child is less stressed in the interview, you’ll get better information. If the child is less stressed in a medical exam, you’ll get better evidence. And the child will be better able to testify when you get to court.”  

While the outcomes of cases involving children whom Gryffin has worked with have yet to be determined, his impact on the children is clear. Following sessions with Gryffin, parents are surveyed, and the feedback thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“What we’re looking for is for the kids to remember the good experience rather than the negative part of the interview and whatever may have been discussed,” says Potts. “Some of the parents say their kids would not have been as comfortable without him there, would not have been able to say what they had said without him there.”

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