Air Force Base deploys comfort canine to help victims of sex assaults

Tessa, the Air Force’s first sexual assault prevention and response K-9, poses for an official photo at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 6, 2017. Tessa’s main purpose is to comfort victims of sexual assault, and she is joining the 354th Fighter Wing’s SAPR office, which has a team of 16 certified victim advocates. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ashley Nicole Taylor)

A U.S. Air Force installation has enlisted a first-of-her-kind recruit to aid in the fight against on-base sexual assault. Only her rank doesn’t exist among lieutenants and captains.

Eielson Air Force Base officials have credited Tessa – a 5-month old golden retriever – with helping seven service members who have come forward to report attacks.

"It’s been phenomenal having a tiny member of our team accomplish so much positivity in the short amount of time she’s been here," Air Force Capt. Heather Novus, the 354th Fighter Wing’s sexual assault response coordinator, said in a release. “I hope we can smooth the transition for other bases to adopt a [sexual assault prevention and response] K-9, and we would love to assist supporting this idea across other installations and can ease the process for others to adopt what has been a successful program so far.”

Tessa serves as a comfort canine, helping victims of abuse to come forward.

“Tessa brings a stability to reconnect with victims who have emotionally disconnected because of the traumatic event they have gone through,” Shellie Severa, the 354th Fighter Wing’s SAPR head victim advocate, said. “Each individual is different on how they are going to handle their trauma, but one of the biggest things we see with almost all trauma victims is lack of trust, and trust can be re-established through the assistance of a dog.”

Tessa’s mission began in the winter of 2016.

“We are having victims come out of the shadows who were afraid for numerous reasons to report; having a dog in the program is important for them to realize this is a place where they are safe and can rebuild trust,” Severa said. “Tessa has brought many smiles to people engaging with her, and encouraged people to tell their story, which helps them to have a voice again and take back the power they lost.”

The canine’s involvement on base is a visible example of the U.S. military’s efforts to address on-base sexual assault since it was reported only about 3,000 of 26,000 bases were report. The number of unreported cases took a nosedive in 2015. .

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