Seven years ago, Ángel Mariscal received a phone call from a woman asking him to train her dog so it could protect her from an abusive partner. The veteran dog handler, who runs a company called Security Dogs that trains canines for private security, initially refused.
“Then I began to think about it,” says Mariscal. “There was no need to train a dog to defend somebody: all dogs have a deep-rooted protective instinct. I had worked with dogs for 25 years and never fully realized this.”
We want legislation that will allow women to take these dogs with us wherever we go, like guide dogs
América, victim of gender violence
Rather than guard dogs, Mariscal uses the term protection dogs, or pepos, which in Spanish has a comforting ring to it. He has since set up a foundation, with some 20 women throughout Spain now using his specially trained canines. At present, the foundation has around 16 women from all over Spain on its waiting list.
“These dogs do not bite, and they don’t go in for the kill. They are not aggressive, because we need animals that are very sociable, able to live in homes with children and behave perfectly normally until they are given a specific command to protect their owner,” says Mariscal.
Training the dogs to bring out their protective instinct to the full is time-consuming and requires that both animal and owner undergo a course of up to 200 hours. Women who approach the foundation are first assessed by a psychologist.
“We prefer it if the courts have already issued a restraining order against the woman’s partner, but we will look at cases where women are too frightened to report their aggressor to the authorities,” Mariscal explains.
Once their home environment has been approved by an expert in animal behavior, women undergo an initial 20-hour course under police supervision. This is then followed by a further 150 hours in dog handling, during which Mariscal and his team choose a dog that fits the adoptee’s character and situation. Both training and dog, which cost around €8,000, are provided free of charge by the foundation.
The foundation receives no public funding, and Mariscal pays for the program with the profits from his security firm. Psychologists, trainers and coaches all work for free in this pioneering project. “The regional government of Madrid supports us and sends us women that have been on its protection programs, but this is still very much a new area,” says Mariscal, adding that Mexican authorities have contacted him about establishing a similar scheme there.
Mariscal highlights the benefits to the women who are now using pepos. “We soon realized that these dogs do so much more than just protect their new owners. They give women a new sense of self-confidence: women feel empowered, they get their lives back, they start going out and meeting new people,” he says.
“The head of psychiatry at Madrid’s Doce de Octubre hospital, who is an advisor to the foundation, told me that these dogs achieve in seven days what takes him seven years in terms of recovery therapy,” adds Mariscal.
The foundation has around 16 women from all over Spain on its waiting list
América, one of the women now using a protection dog provided by Mariscal, says she had attended group-therapy sessions for victims of gender-specific violence, but that they didn’t help her. “I couldn’t sit in a circle with 10 other women listening to all the terrible things that had happened to them, and much less tell people about what had been done to me. It was too much,” she says.
Gema, another woman on the program, says that having a pepo has changed her life. “We go everywhere together: my dog stays in a kennel by the security gate where I work. I know that he is waiting for me when I leave work, which makes me feel very safe,” she says.
Other women have found it harder to keep their dog with them at all times, says Mariscal. “We want legislation that will allow women to take these dogs with us wherever we go, like guide dogs,” explains América.
After all she has been through, Gema says she will probably never trust anybody fully again aside from Mariscal and her dog. “I trust Kala,” she says, stroking the dog. “When my husband gets out of jail I know that he will come after me. Let him: he’s going to find a woman who knows how to defend herself.”
América is visibly emotional when she tries to explain what Vero, her Canary mastiff, means to her. He’s a protection dog, but she says she has learned much from him, and that above all, she now feels free. She points to a tattoo on her arm of a dog’s paw print. Written underneath it is emblazoned: “You came into my life so I could be free again.”
English version by Nick Lyne.