KIEV: A Ukrainian soldier who returned from the war-torn separatist east and his "therapy dogs" attend an open training session in Kiev on February 18, 2020 during a preparation for the Invictus Games the Hague 2020. - AFP

KIEV: Ricky, a larger than life golden retriever, wags his tail as he nestles his head on Vasyl's lap. But still the war veteran looks tense. Then the dog throws his front paws onto the shoulders of the 47-year-old suffering from post-war trauma, and a smile forms across his face. "This is probably the most soothing thing," says Vasyl in the corridor of a large medical center for veterans in Kiev. Vasyl, who along with other interviewees declined to give his full name due to the stigma around mental health in the country, was wounded fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Now, he is one of the participants in an initiative to help soldiers overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with the help of therapy dogs. In it's sixth year, Kiev's conflict with separatists in the breakaway areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions has claimed more than 13,000 lives, including 4,000 Ukranian troops. With some 10,000 soldiers injured in the conflict, one group of volunteers hopes dog therapy can be a resource for veterans whose injuries are hidden.

When war broke out in Ukraine in 2014, its military inherited from the Soviet Union was not prepared for an onslaught of veterans suffering from stress. Although some 500,000 Ukrainians have served in the military since, discussing mental health and the psychological impact of the war remains taboo. "There are positive steps from the state," says Rodion Grigoryan, a psychologist who volunteers with veterans.

"But there is a lack of systematic effort," including little funding from the government to address the problem, he said. The Ukranian authorities do not keep records on the numbers of soldiers battling PTSD, says Oksana Kolyada, minister for veteran's affairs who lost her post this week in a government reshuffle. She told AFP that generally over 10 percent of veterans worldwide experience post-war trauma, with symptoms including flashbacks, depression, aggressive behaviors and self-harm.

Moments of despair
There are no official statistics on suicide rates among veterans, but Oleksandr Tretyakov, then chairman of the parliamentary committee on veterans, said in 2018 that at least 1,000 Ukranian veterans had taken their own lives. What's more, ex-soldiers report feeling misjudged in society over the perception that the military is an easy life, free from the economic hardships experienced by many Ukrainians. As a result, half of veterans in a recent EU-sponsored poll said they felt discriminated against and more than a third reported feeling isolated.

Olga Smirnova, the coordinator of the dog therapy program, says more than one thousand soldiers have benefited since it launched with the help of Canadian instructors in 2015. Its canine participants wear bright harnesses bearing the program's name "Hero's friend", and have been trained not to "react aggressively", says Natalia Chuprun, who has been volunteering with the program with her dog Ricky for four years. Chuprun says that interacting with the animals makes it easier for veterans to engage with "people who care about them", including those who want to help them professionally.

The dogs also intervene in moments of despair, Chuprun says, recounting how when one veteran was in the middle of a panic attack, "Ricky lay down next to him, so he calmed down." Victoria, a psychologist at the Kiev military hospital, says she has noticed a drop in anxiety and depression, and "better sleep" in more than half of her patients who take part in the dog therapy sessions.

Oleksandr, a 38-year-old veteran who spent one year at the frontline in eastern Ukraine, says his "life has changed" since Deep Purple, a labrador, was assigned to him in his flat on the outskirts of Kiev. He says Deep Purple has brought calm to his life and stability to his sleep patterns. Once he was overwhelmed in the middle of the street by images from the conflict, he said. But the touch of his dog's wet snout on his hand helped ground him. "He acts before I even realise it, Oleksandr says. -AFP