Four-Legged Companions and Guardians for Rape Survivors: An Interview with Michael Hosto
One night when Michael Hosto was 12 years old, someone broke into his family’s St. Louis home and raped his mother. This event traumatized his family and left his mother feeling helpless and afraid. After watching his mother spend decades living in fear, Hosto was driven to make a difference in the lives of other people who had experienced similar trauma.
In 2013, Hosto founded Guardian Therapy Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides German Shepherds for rape survivors nationwide. The Atlantic Beach, Florida organization is committed to helping male and female rape survivors own a dog that can be a companion and guardian.
“I wanted to help people, and I thought if I could provide people with German Shepherd dogs it would allow them to live a more normal life with a sense of security,” said Hosto.
Why German Shepherds?
Several years ago, Hosto was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he may lose his eyesight. Out of fear, he bought a German Shepherd who he quickly fell in love with. When he travelled for work, he could trust the dog to protect his wife and three little girls at home. The dog gave his wife an unmatched sense of security, and it was then that he realized how much safer rape survivors like his mother would feel if they had a loving, family dog to live with.
When Hosto founded Guardian Therapy Dogs, he knew that German Shepherds would be the perfect fit for the program because of their protective nature.
“I wanted to provide a dog that would make [rape survivors] feel safe,” said Hosto. “I knew it would change their world.”
At the start of the program, Hosto would buy a German Shepherd puppy, give it to a family to raise and train, and then donate the dog to a rape survivor. However, he discovered that this method was not the most effective.
“Raising a puppy is challenging for a family, and then it is even more challenging to have to give that puppy away to a complete stranger after several months,” said Hosto.
Guardian Therapy Dogs now waits to seek out a suitable dog until they are approached by someone in need. The organization then reaches out to a German Shepherd breeder or German Shepherd rescue facility in the rape survivor’s community to solicit the contribution of a purebred German Shepherd. Since many registered breeders with high standards for their line do not want to sell dogs with slight physical flaws such as incorrect eye color or a bent tail, some breeders who share the mission and values of the organization are willing to consider donating these dogs to Guardian Therapy Dogs.
The organization wants people to understand that they do not provide attack dogs, but, rather, loving pets who are instinctually protective. They only accept adult German Shepherds that have demonstrated sound emotional health and basic obedience training. Above all else, the dogs must be sociable and loving.
“We want dogs that make the survivors feel like they would give their life for their master,” said Hosto.
The Right Fit for Human and Dog
Rape survivors usually hear about Guardian Therapy Dogs through local rape crisis centers and counselors, police departments, or social media.
While many people are interested in receiving a Guardian Therapy Dog, the organization is selective as to whom they serve. Interested rape survivors must have the psychological and financial means necessary to care for a dog. The dog is provided to the survivor at no cost, but they are responsible for all expenses incurred once the dog is in their possession. The survivor must also be able to provide a living space that is suitable for an active, large dog. Because of this, they must have a fenced in yard with space for the dog and cannot live in an apartment building.
“It is important that we keep the best interest of the dog in mind as well,” said Hosto.
Moving Forward with a New Companion
After giving a rape survivor a dog, Guardian Therapy Dogs does not keep in touch with their clients, unless the client reaches out first. This helps the clients feel a sense of independence and avoid any unnecessary reminders of horrific events of their pasts.
However, Hosto has heard from many clients who say that their dog provides a reliable sense of security and the protection necessary to function while at home, work, or play.
Hosto recalled one woman who was amazed by the impact of her German Shepherd and wanted to share how wonderful the dog was.
“She said it changed her life,” said Hosto. “She used to lay awake at night, worrying about every little sound she heard, but with the dog sleeping by her side, she had a piece of mind and could actually sleep.”
Guardian Therapy Dogs’ biggest obstacle for growth is currently awareness of their services. Hosto hopes to strengthen awareness of the organization by recruiting volunteers who have social media interest or experience. In the future, Hosto looks forward to growing his organization and having the opportunity to serve rape survivors throughout the United States and Canada. He is passionate about the organization and the benefits it can provide for people who are looking to overcome fear and live life to the fullest.
“I am passionate about [Guardian Therapy Dogs],” said Hosto. “Watching our dogs make such a profound difference in the lives of people is my reward in life.”
For more information about Guardian Therapy Dogs, visit their website.