Animal Tales: Traumatized dog helps traumatized women

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LEWISTON — Locked in a cage for six years, used for breeding, rescued from a puppy mill, Sophie gets anxious.

The 9-year-old fluffy white poodle trembles when strangers approach. She flinches and runs for the corner at sudden, loud metallic sounds — like keys dropped on the floor — probably because puppy mill owners like to shut up barking dogs by clanging something against their cage bars. She sometimes needs anti-anxiety medication to get her through the morning.

At The Center for Wisdom’s Women, Sophie is in good company. Almost all of the humans there have experienced trauma of their own

“She’s our mascot,” volunteer Helen Belisle said.

Founded almost 20 years ago by the Daughters of Wisdom, a Catholic organization, the Lewiston center provides a safe haven, community support and resources to women dealing with trauma, addiction, health problems, anxiety and other issues.

The center’s executive director, Klara Tammany, adopted Sophie almost two years ago, and immediately began bringing her to work. Although the center has become a second home to her, Sophie still shakes in Tammany’s arms when they get in each morning and still startles when a drawer thunks closed or someone around her moves too quickly.

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A handmade sign on Tammany’s office door warns: “Sophie is here. Please go slow!”

The women understand. Some have been abused themselves. Many have been — or are — anxious or scared. They have their own triggers.

“She’s part of the family,” said one woman who asked to remain anonymous for fear that her abuser would know where she goes.

On a recent morning, Sophie joined a half-dozen women for the center’s daily meditation circle. Sitting in Tammany’s lap, Sophie panted nervously or leaned against Tammany for comfort. At a short Qigong session afterward, Sophie sat in her own chair as Tammany practiced deep breathing and slow movements.

At one point, Tammany leaned forward until she and Sophie were nose to nose. For a moment, both woman and dog appeared to smile.

Tammany believes Sophie serves as an example to the women that healing takes time and trauma’s effects can be long-lasting, so “let’s not be so judgmental.”

“You see the same behaviors and responses to triggers in her as in women here who have been traumatized, which is just about all of them,” Tammany said.

“She’s 9 years old, she’s been here a year and a half, she still has these reactions. She might never be a ‘normal’ dog. If we understand that about dogs, why don’t we understand that about people?”

Sophie also serves as an emotional support to the women, who stroke her head, coo and sometime say ‘hi, baby’ when they see her.

“I’m a dog person, so I find it calming just to have a dog’s presence,” said Bethanie Bernard, who is both volunteer and guest at the center. “When I’m feeling anxiety, just to be able to see her or even go in and pet her every now and then, it’s very calming.”

The women’s connection to Sophie has Tammany considering at least one live-in rescue dog for the center’s planned Sophia’s House, a home that will provide long-term help and housing to women who have experienced prostitution, trafficking, addiction or prison.

“Just the act of caring for a damaged animal helps you understand your own self and your own wounds and healing,” Tammany said. “You heal together.”

Sophia’s House and Sophie were named for the same reason — in the Greek translation of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, “Sophia” means wisdom.

Sophie is not the only dog to visit the center. Two volunteers sometimes bring in their own dogs, including a chihuahua that also works as a therapy dog. But Sophie is the only dog listed on the staff page of the center’s website.

“She’s become a really sweet mascot here,” Tammany said.

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

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