Meet Smilte. She's a healthcare professional. She's also two feet tall, about three feet long, has four legs, and a very handsome tail. You may have guessed it already, but Smilte isn't your average doctor. She's a golden retriever, who pays regular visits to the SOS Children's Village in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“I have so much to tell her!”
Many of the youngsters living at the Children's Village have been through some terrible experiences. Some of them have lost both their parents, while others have suffered abuse, neglect or violence. Forming relationships can be tough after such trauma, and sharing your feelings can be even harder. But Smilte knows exactly what to do.
Today, she's working with little Ema. When Ema's SOS mother Audra told them who would be visiting, she jumped for joy. “Smilte can be your magical friend who you can share your biggest secrets with,” says Audra. “She's a very loyal friend, and she never lies. But you'll have to behave well too, and learn to take care of her.”
“I have so much to tell her!” says Ema. She and her canine therapist made friends straight away. They had a good chat and Smilte showed Ema her paws (she's very proud of her paws!). When they'd got to know each other, Ema whispered something in one Smilte's big floppy ears. Three sessions later, Ema and Smilte are the best of friends. Ema can say whatever she likes because she knows that Smilte will never tell.
“An animal doesn't care where I'm from”: Why animal therapy works
If you're wondering whether animal therapy actually works, you'll be pleased to hear that the answer is a resounding “you bet!” There's a strong body of evidence to suggest that animal therapy can encourage emotional development, fostering empathy and nurturing a caring instinct, improving motivation and – in the short term – prompting the brain to release endorphins.
For a distressed or traumatised child, an animal can offer a level of comfort few humans can. At our Children's Village in Mersch, Luxembourg, the team are running another animal therapy programme with farm animals at “Schneider Haff”, formerly a working farm.
“An animal doesn't care where I'm from,” says 13-year-old Charlotte. Animals are non-judgmental, offering unconditional affection. Children who have been abused or suffered neglect often struggle to form relationships because they feel worthless and have lost the capacity to trust. Spending time with an animal can help rebuild this sense of trust, helping children to form human relationships.
Building lifelong resilience
Domesticated animals are completely reliant on humans for their well-being. Caring for an animal can help foster a sense of responsibility and self-worth. A child who is utterly lost in themselves and unable to engage in the external world can find some outside value in having a pet which is dependent on them for their welfare.
“I was very sad that the calf died just after it had been born,” says six-year-old Patrick. “But now we're mum to another calf that doesn't have a real mother, just like me, which is good.” Seeing an animal suffer is hard, especially for a child. But it can help children understand and cope with difficult realities, such as death and illness, showing them that life goes on and happiness is possible for others.
Patrick identifies with the new calf because, like him, it is an orphan. He knows he is not alone, and wants to help another like himself. Experiences like this can give a child extraordinary resilience in the face of the challenges life has to offer.
Ema lives at our SOS Children's Village in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where supporters like you provide a mother, a family home, and ongoing care and support to the most vulnerable children. Find out what else is going on at SOS Lithuania...