Dogs, known as man's best friend, have proven to be an assets to therapy. In Sderot, the adage takes on a deeper meaning for youths taking part in a special dog-training program designed to boost their self-esteem in light of the ongoing rocket fire.
Chavat HaChayot ("The Animal Farm"), an organization based in Moshav Bet Ezra just outside Ashdod, offers dog-training seminars for youth of all backgrounds, and from all over Israel. .
In Sderot, participants ages 13-17, are at-risk youths who take part in the weekly sessions and learn how to become dog trainers. "Sderot is one of the most important cities that we visit. Because of the constant Qassam fire, the city's youth are especially vulnerable." said Paul Makias, the project's director.
The dogs and their trainers (Photo: Hamutal ben-Sheetrit)
"We are talking about at-risk youth, some of whom have stopped going to school or have difficult home situations," added Makias. "By learning to become dog trainers, these kids are given another chance. They learn discipline and responsibility while undergoing therapy without being aware of it."
The training sessions are divided into two parts, where the kids first learn to build a relationship with the dogs by giving them basic commands to sit, stand, jump, etc. In the latter part of the session, they train the dogs to jump over obstacles. Each participant "receives" his own dog, and two professional dog trainers, a Sderot social worker, and Makias himself are on hand to provide support and guidance for the children.
"In the beginning of the program, these kids were aggressive, impatient and short-tempered," said Makias. "It was amazing to see the kind of effect these dogs have had. Today, these same kids are noticeably more calm and gentle, interacting with the dogs much more patiently. The relationship that the kids establish with their dogs is in itself therapeutic."
A friend in needMakias works in coordination with Sderot social worker, Avi Benita, who believes that the dogs offer an integral form of therapy for Sderot children. "By using these sessions to teach Sderot kids how to build a relationship with a dog, they begin to rebuild their sense of confidence which has been completely shattered by their personal situations at home, and further exacerbated by the sirens and Palestinian rocket attacks," Benita told the Sderot Media Center.
"At the end of the program, the kids' confidence increases as so does their sense of purpose, while at the same time, their dog-handling skills improve and their interaction with people."
The dog-training project was established five years ago, and the weekly visits to Sderot have been going on for four years to date.
Each week, Makias and his crew bring the dogs and special training equipment to cities across Israel, making Sderot their first stop every Sunday. The dogs range from golden retrievers to pinchers, and each suits itself to the needs of the child he is matched with.
"Our dogs are well familiar with the sound of the Color Red alert and the rocket explosions," said Benita. "When the siren sounds, the kids and the dogs enter a nearby bomb shelter and wait for the attack to pass. The dogs sense the danger of incoming rockets but they also sense the children's fear," he added.
"By having the dogs around them during those moments, these Sderot kids feel slightly more at ease. Nevertheless, the experience is scary for all of us."
Makias has future plans for the kids and dogs that he works with: "I hope to hold a national dog competition within the next few months at a state level that will bring all these kids together," he said.
"I've held such competitions in the past but this will be the first time where Sderot youth will have the chance to participate and show off their dog-training skills with youth from across the country."
In the meantime, the Sderot kids will prepare for the competition on a weekly basis even with the escalation of Palestinian rocket fire.