By Minal Kavishwar*

I had a golden retriever named Goldie, who was my companion for 13 years. A lot of people will go ‘awww!’ when I’d tell them about my golden retriever. But what would you say if I tell you that she was not just my companion, but my co-therapist also? Yes, you guessed it right! She was a therapy dog and she worked with me for 11 out of the 13 years of her life as a therapy dog.

Goldie was the second therapy dog that I trained, but the first one that I raised as she was a puppy. Before Goldie, I had trained a Labrador named Kutty, for a school for mentally challenged children. Kutty worked as a therapy dog for that school for 7 out of the 10 years of her life. I trained Kutty and Goldie in 2003, when people had not even heard of a therapy dog or animal assisted therapy. Even I hadn’t heard of it, till I started training Kutty! When I was approached to train Kutty, the school had a little idea of what they wanted to train the dog for. I suggested a dog that could provide emotional support to children. I studied about Animal Assisted Therapy and went on to conduct a three year research study at that school on how therapy dogs helped children with special needs. That’s when I started ‘Animal Angels Foundation’, India’s only NGO working to create awareness about Animal Assisted Interventions and healing benefits of therapy animals. Till then people had heard fleetingly about service dogs but not therapy dogs. The work of a service dog is totally different from that of a therapy dog. A service dog stays with a person with disability 24*7 to help him fulfill the functions that he cannot due to the disability. A service dog is employed under the person with disability and is not a pet. Therapy dogs on the other hand are pets, which provide mental and emotional support to a range of people. They are what we call, ‘visiting professionals’. So Kutty stayed with principal of the school and visited school every day along with the principal; she went back to her family after school hours to live a happy life of a Lab. Goldie and Kutty were the very first therapy dogs in India that were trained by international standards, and Kutty was even registered as a Pet Partner (globally leading organization certifying teams of therapy dog-handlers).

So how did Goldie or Kutty help me in my work as a therapist? A lot of people, especially pet owners know that petting a dog makes you happy, it lowers down your stress and releases ‘oxytocin’ or the ‘feel good’ hormones. These and many more other benefits of pets make them unique partners in therapy. Just imagine, a regular pet at home can make you forget about your worries, then what can a trained therapy dog do, when his skills are combined with that of a therapist? Now, contrary to what a lot of people think happens in animal therapy, it’s not merely by petting them that you feel better. Yes, that’s just one of the many benefits. But in Animal Assisted Therapy, the therapist incorporates a therapy dog in various goal-oriented activities. For example, if a patient in recovery needs motivation to work his limbs post operation, the physiotherapist may involve a therapy dog team and instead of just asking the patient to move his limbs, may ask him to throw a ball at therapy dog, or brush the dog in steady rhythmic strokes. Or a school counsellor may have a therapy dog in her set up and as children speak to her, they also pet the dog, hence feeling more comfortable to open up to the counsellor.

Another question that crops up in people’s mind is, whether playing with dog or petting a dog is equivalent to therapy? Well, playing with a dog, petting a cat, watching puppies play, or riding a horse, even watching a fish tank, will surely give you therapeutic benefits, but it becomes ‘Animal Assisted Therapy’ only when it is combined with measurable, therapeutic goals, and conducted by a therapist. It is the same way as there is a difference between talking to your best friend over a cup of coffee and going to a trained and certified counsellor to work out your problems.

The more casual version of this is Animal Assisted Activity, which need not have a specific goal and can be conducted by a trained team of therapy dog and handler. One of our most popular Animal Assisted Activity programmes is the ‘Tails of Joy’ – Animal Assisted Reading programme. We conduct these programmes in books stores and libraries, where kids come and read to a ‘Reading Buddy’, which is a therapy dog. Here, the only goal is to encourage children to read out loud and express themselves freely. Reading to a therapy dog lowers their inhibition and fear of making mistakes and they enjoy it too! Who wouldn’t like cuddling up with a dog to read a book?

Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Activities are both forms of Animal Assisted Interventions, which is the global term used to describe these activities that are mutually beneficial for humans and animals. Here, the part ‘mutually beneficial’ is very important. When we visit a family to assess a therapy dog, they often tell us that their pet is extremely friendly and loves meeting people. But not every friendly dog can become a therapy dog. A therapy dog needs to have a balanced temperament, which means, if he is obedient and friendly in its home setting, will he also be obedient and friendly in outdoor settings, full of distractions, amongst completely new people? Sometimes more than 20 people at a time! And most importantly, will your dog enjoy that kind of attention? This is where the ‘mutually beneficial’ part comes in. A therapy dog willingly works in the set up allotted to him, because he loves the attention, understands emotions, and is trained to respond to them; also, because he enjoys the process of helping people. Whenever I used to go to pick up therapy dog Scotty, a gorgeous golden retriever, he would recognize his ‘work bag’, get super excited, and would just jump in the car, waiting to go and visit children. Like Scotty, another therapy dog from our team, Lucky, gets equally excited about visiting kids with special needs. But like Scotty, she’s not a golden retriever. In fact, she’s an Indie dog, who was a skinny, injured street dog living by a dumpster, picked up from streets and nurtured by her current pet parents. Lucky shows us that we can heal our own wounds, learn to trust people, and help others heal in turn. With the motto ‘breed no bar’ only personality and temperament matters, we have an inclusive team of Dalmatians, Doberman, Cocker Spaniels, Pugs, Shih Tzus, and Indies. It’s not just therapy dogs, you know! My cat, Cookie also assisted me in my therapy sessions when she was younger. Now being 11 years old, she has retired and spends her afternoons watching pigeons and being a personal therapy cat to us in her spare time.

Besides dogs and cats, horses are also very popular as therapy animals. Equine Assisted Therapy is when a trained horse, along with a trained rider, and a psychotherapist, work with the person in need. Horses are incredibly intelligent and very good at sensing human emotions. There any many therapeutic benefits of riding a horse. But even being around horses and doing certain activities with them can benefit us. There are numerous studies showing benefits of therapeutic riding for people with physical disabilities and body balance issues.

So, is it just cats, dogs, and horses that fit the bill? What about other animals? Hamsters, rabbits, goats, pigs, lamas!! Where do we draw the line? Can any animal become a therapy animal? Well, all animals have a unique therapeutic benefit. Like a cat’s purr and the licks from her rough tongue can help our muscles heal and improve blood circulation. A rabbit can give us a sense of nurturance and comfort, watching fish relaxes out muscles and lowers down blood pressure. Even farm animals like cows, sheep, and chicken are known to be therapy animals. But the most important thing is willingness of the animal. If a chicken loves to give hugs to new people and loves to be the center of attention, by all means she can be a therapy chicken!!

All this may sound cute! Cuddle a bunny, hug a dog, and play with a cat. But what about what they want? What about their welfare? What we have to keep in mind here is – Is the animal enjoying the interaction? Is the animal in his natural habitat? Is the animal exhibiting its natural behaviour? The answers to these would not be true for animals like macaws, snakes, dolphins etc. So essentially animals that have lived along with humans and are used to being around, being handled by humans, can be considered for therapy.

In-spite of working in this field for 15 years in India, I would say that the field is still in a novice stage, where a lot of awareness and education is needed. There’s a growing sense of awareness in pet parents and families, which are now raising dogs, understanding that they may also have a higher purpose in life, than just sitting at home all day. They have enough love to give to their families as well as to those in need. Our appeal to people is ‘to share love of your pet with someone in need of it’. Of course, it’s not just an animal’s responsibility. The pet parent needs to be equally compassionate and understand the importance of community work. Our teams of therapy dogs and handlers, from Animal Angels teams across Mumbai, Pune, and Bangalore, are dedicated towards serving fellow human beings with the help of our four-footed companions and therapists.

So far, Animal Angels therapy dogs have worked with Cancer patients, children with special needs, senior citizens, children in conflict with law, school children, corporates etc. But the most popular application so far has been the ‘Airport Comfort Dogs Program’, where our therapy dogs comforted the passengers traveling from the Mumbai International airport. It was the first and only comfort dog program on any international airport in Asia. And incidentally, the last program that therapy dog Goldie worked on.

My biggest learning, working with animals as co-therapists, has been, to live in the moment and to be your true self. These two remarkable qualities in animals make them superior to us. After having worked with animals as co-therapists for about 15 years now, I can’t imagine working without a four-footed co- therapist.