Taking the lead

How rescue dogs are helping rape survivors

24th July 2018

In 2017, 510,000 women and 138,000 men experienced sexual violence in the UK — that’s 3% of women and almost 1% of men.

In the same year, Dogs Trust rescued 67,000 dogs, the RSPCA rescued 114,584 animals and hundreds of other smaller charities helped abandoned and abused dogs too.

The statistics are harrowing but rape survivor and social entrepreneur Marie Yates offers a solution.

She brings people affected by sexual violence and shelter dogs who can’t be rehomed through her social enterprise Canine Hope. The survivors work with Yates’s to help socialise the animals and prepare them for their forever homes.

Bruno and many other dogs like him help people understand it’s the perpetrator who is to blame

Through her programmes the animals and humans recover, build resilience, learn to live in the moment and trust each other. And it’s the dogs who deliver that message.

Bruno dog
Bruno’s horrific abuse meant he needed to have a leg amputated

One of them is adorable Staffordshire Bull Terrier Bruno. Yates, 37, from Herefordshire, explains: “Bruno has three legs. He had to have his leg amputated after he was kicked and stamped on by two grown men. Did he bite them? No.

“Did he bark? No. Did he run away? No. Instead, when the police raided the house they found him cowering behind the sofa.

“Bruno and many other dogs like him help people understand it’s the perpetrator who is to blame by explaining things through the perspective of a dog.”

Yates was raped as a teenager and it was when she took in her rescue dog Reggie, a Rottweiler, in her mid-twenties she realised the parallels between survivors of sexual violence and dogs who had been abused.

Together, they helped each other heal and, heartbreakingly, Reggie passed away earlier this year but his legacy lives on and Yates’s other dog Bear, who was saved from a puppy farm, joins in her sessions too.

Yates began helping survivors in 2104 when she wrote her first book, Reggie and Me, a fictional story of teen survivor Dani Moore and the incredible bond she shared with her rescue dog. It was nominated for the People’s Book Prize in 2015.

While promoting it, Yates took Reggie along and met many survivors and found they all gravitated to her dog. She explained: “Reggie came to me as an adult and he completely changed my world. He made me feel safe.

It was when Reggie was in the room that we made the most amount of change and that’s how it all started

“I wanted to share how he’d helped me and decided to write the book to reach out to young people. As a survivor, I didn’t want it to be a great big ‘woe is me story.’ I created a teenage character who they could listen to and identify with.

“I wanted to make it a cool story with underlying positive messages that people could read and think, ‘yes, she gets it.’ I’ve had really positive feedback from readers. They say it’s like Dani is in their head.

“The book did well and Reggie was on the front cover, so naturally, people wanted him to come with to signings and events. It was when he was in the room that we made the most amount of change and that’s how it all started.”

Then, in 2015, Yates took redundancy from her job as a civil servant, enabling her to focus on her enterprise full time. She studied to become a dog trainer and wrote two more books.

Armed with her knowledge about how to socialise dogs and her experience of seeing them engage with survivors, she began Canine Hope workshops, first with Reggie, and then with shelter dogs.

Yates explained: “In the day-long workshops, we do training exercises and work on the science of recovery and how we respond to trauma at different stages in life, and explain it through the eyes of the dog.

Bruno has lost his leg, he’s been through pain but is now in a safe place and enjoying life

“The key thing for the survivors is it’s not about them. They listen to the dog’s story and realise the similarities. We look at what the dog has experienced, why they’re in rescue, what they’ve overcome and where the responsibility lies, which is never with the dog.

Marie Yates won £11,000 to help her build the charity

“With Bruno for example, they see he’s lost his leg, he’s been through pain but is now in a safe place and enjoying life, and on three legs.

“My dog Bear is a huge Newfoundland Collie cross, another big strong dog who was hurt through no fault of his own and who wasn’t able to leave that situation. Now he loves learning and is so gentle and trusting of people.

For some, the dog can be the only living being they’ve touched for years

“Particularly with the larger dogs, people feel secure around them, and survivors are able to interact and physically touch another living being and feel safe. For some, the dog can be the only living being they’ve touched for years.

Bruno dog
People who have been on Marie’s workshops say interacting with the dogs has helped them become more assertive and confident

“It gives them hope. It sounds heavy but we deliver the message in a fun way. The dogs are fun and playful and people come away laughing. The dogs settle around people and we teach them cues such as ‘sit’, ‘stay’ or ‘lie down’ to help them develop.”

Yates has helped thousands of people through her books, more than 200 through workshops and along with the survivors Canine Hope has helped rehome 20 dogs.

The people who have been on workshops feel as though the dogs have had a genuine effect on them.

One participant says: “Working with the dog has made me feel more confident to speak to others and has also taught me to listen to myself. I’m more willing to say how I feel without having fear of repercussions.”

Another agrees, adding: “The programme has made me be kinder to myself.”

Being with the dog made me realise that when I’m at home, I look after my children and my pets better than I do myself

Building self-confidence and assertiveness and feelings of self-worth are themes that come up a lot with clients.

One says: “Being with the dog made me realise that when I’m at home, I look after my children and my pets better than I do myself. It made me see I need to look after me more. I need to be more active and positive and kind to myself.”

Yates’s work was recognised by pet food brand Purina at their Better With Pets forum in June where social entrepreneurs from all over the world came together to celebrate the human-animal bond and the role pets play in enriching our lives.

Canine Hope won a prize of £11,000, enabling Yates to deliver workshops across the South West region and she hopes to extend this across the UK, working with people affected by domestic violence, bullying, stress and other mental health issues.

As a survivor, my message is that your life doesn’t have to defined by one event

Yates says: “To have support from a global pet business is fantastic and to know that people believe in what we do and are inspired by it means to much to me. The extra funding means we can help more people.

“There’s a dog shelter and a survivor charity in every town in Britain and my aim is for Canine Hope to be able to work with all of them. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. I love seeing people enjoying themselves and the dogs benefiting.

“To spend your days doing this. I just feel very lucky. As a survivor, my message is that your life doesn’t have to defined by one event. With their remarkable resilience and ability to live in the moment, the dogs reassure us that life will be fabulous.”

24th July 2018