2017-02-19 / Insight

Therapy dog ‘Percy’ helps children overcome trauma

BY KRYSTAL MORALEE
810-452-2609 •


Lapeer County Animal Control Chief Aimee Orn and her English mastiff Percy volunteer time to help victims of dog bites to feel safer and more comfortable around dogs. 
Photo by Krystal Moralee Lapeer County Animal Control Chief Aimee Orn and her English mastiff Percy volunteer time to help victims of dog bites to feel safer and more comfortable around dogs. Photo by Krystal Moralee LAPEER — Anyone would be intimidated at first to interact with a 160-pound English mastiff, particularly a child who has suffered trauma from a dog bite in the past, but Lapeer County Animal Control Chief Aimee Orn’s mastiff has proven to be a wonderful therapy dog.

Orn got her pup from a friend, and after watching Clash of the Titans one night, she decided to name him Perseus. She calls him Percy for short, and when she’s using her exasperated “mom tone” with him, it’s Perseus Joseph.

“I wanted something different and strong that also came with a goofy nickname,” she said.

Percy is now 18 months old, and as of last summer, he’s been participating in a pilot therapy program, working with children who are dog bite victims.

“A friend of mine is a psychologist, and she specializes in children’s trauma,” said Orn.

Her friend had wanted to find a dog she could trust to be safe around children, and as they walked through the Partridge Creek Mall, they approached a big group of kids, and Percy decided he wanted to interact with them. Instead of leaping with excitement like other dogs might, he became still.

“I taught him from a young age, because of what a big dog he is, to lay down when he’s around children,” said Orn.

Orn and her friend decided Percy would be a good candidate to help bite victims overcome their fear of dogs, so they set out to see if it worked.

“This summer we started,” said Orn. “He’s on his third kid. We do it once a week and there’s no set time limit. The whole concept behind the program is to let the child move at his or her own pace.”

Bites often — but not always — occur because children are not being taught how to properly approach a dog, and that’s part of what they do in therapy, Orn said.

“I always tell kids, if it’s not your dog, always ask first. That’s the big one,” she said. “Always approach from the front, not the back, so the dog can see you coming, and try to do it as quietly as possible. No yelling, no screaming, no running.”

Sometimes, she said, kids are bitten by the family pet. Parents should always be mindful, children shouldn’t be handling dogs when they’re eating, and dogs should be exposed to the family’s activities so they’re used to it.

“The dog has to be trained to tolerate,” said Orn. “Tails are going to get stepped on, things are going to happen.”

In fact, she said, the six-month to one-year period in a dog’s life, she said, is an important phase during which the dog should be exposed to as much as possible.

“I’m lucky I have a bunch of neighbor children and I encouraged them to come play with him when he was outside,” she said.

A therapy session includes the psychologist, the child, a parent, Orn and Percy. Orn will start out talking to the child about Percy, telling his name and what he likes to do, what his favorite toys are, and other things that make him seem unfrightening. From there, the children can ask any questions they might have or pet the dog. Orn can even use Percy as an example of what not to do.

“I can pull his tail and he’s not going to react,” she said.

From there, it’s about whatever the child feels comfortable with.

“We use the distraction of the dog to talk to them about certain things,” she said. “It feels like the first (session) is always really awkward. You can see that they’re scared, they don’t know me, they don’t know him, and he’s a big dog.”

Some, she said, take several sessions before they feel comfortable touching the dog, but she said so far, the outcomes have been all favorable. The first child they worked with had been bitten and had extensive damage to her face. It took her three sessions to touch the dog, she had 16 sessions total, and by the last one, she was petting and hugging Percy.

Another child went from not wanting to be anywhere near a dog to wanting one of his own. Some kids, Orn said, will talk to the dog more than the parents or therapist, which gives them more insight as to what the child is feeling.

Percy, Orn said, has been obsessed with children since Day One, and he’s serving a great purpose by helping them face their fears.

“If he can help one kid, it’s worth an hour out of my week, and he loves it,” she said.

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