Children who have suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse in Orange County, California, have found strength to testify against their accusers through the help of a Siberian husky named Patriot who also knows the pain of torment and neglect.
As soon as kids see the scars that wind around the four-year-old canine’s muzzle, “they know that he’s been through a lot, just like they have,” says Kevin Marlin, 47, who adopted Patriot after the dog was rescued by the Orange County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OCSPCA) when he was a pup.
“They’ll look at me and say, ‘Somebody hurt him,’ ” he tells PEOPLE, “and I’ll tell them, ‘Yes. Somebody wasn’t very nice to him, but he’s doing well now.’ Patriot shows that there is hope in moving on with life and getting past the emotional pain. Kids sit and pet him while they talk to attorneys and investigators and they immediately feel more comfortable. Reliving what happened to them is difficult, but he helps them to feel calm and gives them courage and strength.”
Marlin, who is now OCSPCA’s director, has been involved with pet therapy since 2007, when he saw the soothing effect dogs had on his autistic son, Tyler, then 10.
“They had such a wonderful effect that we were able to take him off some of his medications,” he tells PEOPLE, “and I knew that they could work miracles with other kids as well.”
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In 2012, when he and his wife, Misty, adopted Patriot at age 4 months, they noticed that he had extensive injuries to his mouth and took the puppy to an animal hospital. The vet on duty shaved Patriot’s muzzle and discovered that the husky’s wounds had been caused by metal wire wrapped tightly around his snout in a figure-eight pattern.
“Somebody had wrapped it tightly to keep it shut — I’ve struggled to understand why anyone could be so cruel,” says Marlin. “Patriot needed several surgeries to help repair the damage. We also learned that his tongue had been severed about three-quarters of an inch.”
Because Patriot was uncomfortable having anyone touch his mouth area due to his injuries, Marlin gradually taught him to trust again by coating his fingers with peanut butter and letting the dog lick it from his hands. In time, Patriot allowed himself to be petted on the muzzle, and within a year, he didn’t mind wearing a collar again.
When the Orange County District Attorney’s Office decided to use therapy dogs for abused children in March 2016, Marlin knew that Patriot would be a good match. He worked with the legal office to start the PANDA Program — PAWS Assist the Needs of the District Attorney.
“The kids relate to Patriot and vice versa,” he tells PEOPLE. “I remember one young girl who was just beginning the process of a trial, and she was visibly uncomfortable until Patriot came over and nudged her with his nose. The girl grabbed hold of him and cried. They made a strong connection, and the girl was able to move on with her story. She didn’t want to leave Patriot that day when she was finished.”
Besides Patriot, the program uses another 13 therapy dogs to help young victims feel more secure when telling their stories.
“Volunteers and their therapy dogs have provided child victims of sexual assault with the support of gentle and loving dogs at 65 meetings at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office,” PANDA program manager Alicia Nicosia tells PEOPLE. “This successful program is helping to promote justice with compassion.”
Although justice wasn’t served in Patriot’s case (it is unknown who abused the canine), “he wears his scars to remind us all about his story of survival and forgiveness,” Marlin says. “He’s an incredible dog. It’s an honor to have him in my life and spend my days working with him.”