Chavat HaChayot aims not only to help at-risk teens living in Sderot, but also to rescue dogs that have been abandoned.

For the children of Sderot, life is anything but normal. Eight years of Hamas rocket attacks have scarred a generation, leaving them suffering a range of psychological ailments. For at-risk youth, the dangers are even higher. But one creative project could have an answer: dogs.

Fido isn’t called man’s best friend without a reason. For over four years, Chavat HaChayot (The Animal Farm), has been transporting a truck full of rescued dogs to Sderot every week, whatever the danger, and however many missiles are falling.

The animal therapy team works with about 15 at-risk youth in Sderot, from the age of 13 to 17, teaching them how to train dogs, so that more people can enjoy the pleasure and calmness that dogs provide during dangerous times. For the at-risk youth, who even in better days have a challenge integrating normally into society, it’s a vital, and unique, form of therapy.

“We’re not dealing with ordinary kids, but kids who are at risk, which makes their situation in Sderot more complicated,” says Paul Makias, a lead trainer at the five-year-old organization Chavat HaChayot, based in Moshav Bet Ezra outside of Ashdod.

“Working with dogs gives everyone pleasure and a great sense of comfort and security. It’s a process: they are learning how to train dogs and to control them in the most professional way. And by giving [the at-risk youth] such goals with the dogs, we make them forget their situation.”

Training dogs for adoption

Once they have learned their new skills as dog trainers, the youth volunteer with mentally disabled youngsters, teaching them in turn how to train dogs.

The kids not only learn how to train dogs, Makias stresses. “They learn how to have fun. When they?re running with the dogs, they can forget about everything around them and feel good,” he explains, noting that Sderot City Hall has taken an interest in supporting the initiative, but additional funds could expand the program to reach more kids.

Sderot can be very dangerous. During the Gaza war hundreds of missiles fell there, and even today, though the Gaza operation is long over, missiles continue to rain down on the beleaguered city.

The kids, who meet once a week on Fridays to train their dogs, are located immediately next to a bomb shelter so that they and their dogs can race down to the shelter below the moment a siren sounds.

“Our dogs are well familiar with the sound of the Tzeva Adom [Red Alert] and the rocket explosions,” says Makias. “When the siren alarm sounds, the kids and the dogs enter a bomb shelter nearby our training location and wait for the rocket explosion to pass. The dogs sense the danger of the incoming rocket but they also sense the fear of the children.”

Rebuilding shattered confidence

Makias is working with a social worker, Avi Benita from Sderot. Benita believes that by teaching Sderot kids how to build a relationship with a dog in these training sessions, the kids begin to rebuild their sense of confidence, which has been shattered by their personal situations at home, and further exacerbated by the sirens and Palestinian rocket attacks.

Makias believes the seven-man Chavat HaChayot, which also helps bring troubled kids and abandoned dogs together in Ashdod, Jerusalem and Rishon LeZion, offers a double bonus, because it doesn’t just rehabilitate the war-scarred kids, but also the dogs.

After three months in service, the trained dog is a prime candidate for adoption — either through a shelter or by one of the child handlers who was appointed that particular dog.

“The beauty of all this is the dogs we are taking from the animal shelter, after three months, go back to the shelter for adoption, but this time with a catalog of pictures of how they’ve worked with kids, and special needs people,” says Makias.

They are normally adopted within three days, he explains.