‘I don’t really like dogs,’ said Gwen, an older woman who slowly entered the room to join our Canine Hope programme.
‘Ok, I can keep Bruno on his lead and we’ll see how you feel throughout the day,’ I responded. Bruno looked at me, quite clearly saying ‘urm, that’s not the plan, I have some serious cuddling to do.’
Canine Hope is the reason we exist. It’s a programme designed for survivors of sexual violence and rescue dogs. Through the stories of the dogs, we can explore the physiology of trauma, recovery and resilience. We talk about responsibility, again, through the eyes of the dog. We explore how dogs learn to trust humans again, how they can go on to have incredible relationships and how they go on to thrive.
We can never plan for the unadulterated genius that comes directly from the dog. In this case, the genius-in-residence was Bruno. He had been rescued from a horrendous situation and taken straight to the vet. There, his injuries were so severe that he had to have a leg amputated. This was due to intentional trauma inflicted by two people.
Having kicked off with introductions and (for the members of the group who wanted to meet Bruno) kisses, cuddles and treats, I launched into the plan for the day. I was aware that Gwen wanted to be part of the day, but that didn’t include Bruno kisses. Luckily, Bruno was otherwise engaged sitting on the lap of his new favourite human who had joined him on the floor.
During the morning coffee break, I asked Gwen if she would be happy for me to let go of Bruno’s lead, but leave it attached to his harness so that I could pick it up again if she wasn’t comfortable. ‘Sure, he seems like a nice dog, to be fair to him.’
Fear 0 – Bruno 1
Then, the magic happened.
During the second part of the day, we were talking about the fight, flight, freeze response. The group members were in a semi-circle, I was stood at the front with my trusty flip chart and Bruno was lying in the middle of us. The morning cuddles can be quite tiring so he likes to take a nap before the lunchtime puppy eyes extravaganza.
I could see Gwen looking at Bruno. He would open his eyes, scan the room and stretch every few minutes. As he stretched, he was edging closer to Gwen.
I watched as Gwen smiled at him and mouthed ‘hello’. The other group members were looking at each other, saying nothing but looking from Bruno to Gwen and back again.
Nobody was listening to me!
I carried on anyway.
It took about twenty-five minutes for Bruno to reach Gwen’s feet. He didn’t get up, he just lay there. Gwen looked around the room and we all pretended that there was nothing to see, that we hadn’t noticed a thing and remained in ‘workshop mode’.
Gwen leant down and stroked Bruno. He wagged his tail. Gwen smiled.
Gwen was still stroking Bruno as we took a break for lunch. Bruno still hadn’t moved and the other participants gave them space, respecting Bruno’s choice to stay where he was. Gwen started crying, saying to me that this is the first time she has touched another living being in safe way. Gwen was seventy-four years old. She had been abused as a child and abuse continued into her adult life in her first and only relationship that lasted over fifty years. She didn’t have a family and had no friends to speak of. Her husband, the man who abused her, had ensured she was completely isolated. He had passed away four years ago and it was only in the last few months that she had started accessing the service we were delivering the workshop with.
With the counsellor who had joined us for the workshop (we always have a professional counsellor with us), we listened as Gwen shared that she could understand how Bruno must have felt. How frightened he must have been and how nobody could ever say that it was his fault. He sat up, licked her hand and rested his head on her knee. We all cried.
‘These dogs have a reputation for being mean, don’t they?’ I nodded, still not able to form words as I watched Bruno do the work that no human could ever facilitate in this way. ‘I bet people wonder why you didn’t stick up for yourself,’ she said to him.
‘After everything you’ve been through, you seem really happy. There’s hope for me too.’
For the rest of the day, whenever Bruno wasn’t helping to deliver the session, he was with Gwen. As we weren’t going to allow Gwen to sit on the floor, the counsellor brought in one of the big, comfortable chairs from her therapy room. Bruno didn’t jump up immediately, something that surprised me. He waited to be invited. I truly believe that was because he knew Gwen needed to make that choice.
While saying our goodbyes at the end of the day, Bruno was doing the rounds, giving his finest cuddles and kisses. For anyone who has experienced Staffy-love, you’ll know what that means! When Gwen’s turn came, he sat beautifully at her feet and nuzzled into her open hand. He knew, he just knew.
This is why we do what we do. Love Learning from Dogs and #TeamLuna has been inspired by the people and dogs we work with. By supporting us and brightening your day with #TeamLuna products, you’re helping us fund more Canine Hope programmes. Our profits fund the programmes so that survivors can experience a new way of developing resilience. Thank you.