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Therapy dog Onnie is helping survivors of violence in Mexico city

16 Mar 2023

Onnie, the Labrador is part of MSF's animal-assisted psychotherapy program that provides comprehensive care to patients in Mexico City .

Alicia de la Rosa is a psychologist specialising in animal-assisted psychotherapy. Alicia works alongside Onnie, a four-year-old Labrador Retriever, to provide mental health support to victims of torture and extreme violence at the Comprehensive Care Centre in Mexico City, managed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) since 2017.

An MSF team of doctors, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, and physiotherapists, provides comprehensive - and often long-term - care for migrants and Mexicans who have experienced horrific journeys along the migration route or extreme violence in their origin countries. 

Onnie is trained to provide therapeutic support to children, adolescents, the elderly, and people living with disabilities. The support that Onnie and Alicia provide at the centre is one component of the psychosocial care that some patients receive.

Working with Onnie gives [patients] a chance to open up to therapists and feel confident to talk about the difficult situations they have experienced. 

Alicia de la Rosa
MSF psychologist specialising in animal-assisted psychotherapy

“Some of the people who have experienced traumatic situations of extreme violence or torture find it difficult to express their emotions and find trust again in others and in their environment,” says Alicia.

“Working with Onnie gives them a chance to break down barriers so that they can open up to therapists and feel confident to talk about the difficult situations they have experienced. The patients at this centre have been victims of kidnappings, torture, forced prostitution, threats, mutilation, sexual violence, forced recruitment by organised crime gangs, or have even witnessed the murder of a family member.”

Therapy dogs are trained from a very young age. Onnie began his training as a puppy, when he was exposed to different sound stimuli, textures, environments, people, and objects. When he turned one year old, he began his training as a therapy dog. That training was accompanied by basic obedience classes to learn, for example, to sit, lie down, turn, give his paw, jump, and move so that patients with motor difficulties can stroke or pet them. 

Animal-assisted psychotherapy also helps people express their emotions.

“There are people with complex trauma who cannot say, ‘Today I am very sad,’ but can say, ‘Today Onnie looks sad,’” says Alicia. “That allows psychotherapists to know their mood. Patients also transfer the trust they feel for the dog to the therapist. They think, ‘If Onnie wants to be with Alicia, then it means that I can trust her.’” 

Onnie is currently providing support to many patients at the centre, including children, young adults, and families who fled their home countries. The patients show symptoms or acute mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, or anxiety, from traumatic events and extreme violence they experienced at the hands of gangs, criminal groups, and others. 

“Onnie is helping two patients talk about the traumatic experiences they were subjected to,” says Alicia. “This helps them redefine their experiences and learn to name their emotions and feelings.” 

One of these patients is a young man who usually suppresses painful memories and withdraws into himself. When he remembers the traumatic experiences, he is unable to speak or think. That's when Onnie springs into action. “Together they do different activities and exercises that make him feel more relaxed, not threatened, and able to talk about what triggers those traumatic memories,” she says. 

Another patient has trouble discerning between her thoughts and reality. She has been hospitalised several times after self-harming. “We are working with her to try to get her to anticipate when her anxiety symptoms and recurring thoughts start,” says Alicia. 

“Onnie was with her during one crisis. He began to put pressure on her lap with his paws and lick her so that she would be aware of her body in that moment. Today her symptoms have improved quite a lot, and she has been three weeks without any crises.” 

At the beginning of a patient’s treatment, the medical and psychology teams work with them to create therapeutic objectives. Once these objectives are met, Onnie’s job is complete.

“Patients are told in advance that the visits with Onnie will occur between certain dates, so they are aware in advance that the animal-assisted therapy will end,” says Alicia. “This is because a patient bonds with the dogs and it is important to close this bond of affection in a positive way.”

Onnie and Alicia have been part of MSF’s comprehensive care team for two years. “We are very happy,” says Alicia. “We have worked together with everyone involved in the treatment of the survivors to help them recover. Seeing an improvement in the quality of life of these people who have suffered so much and who arrive at the centre so traumatised, is something that gives us great satisfaction.”