- Dogs, cats, birds, fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and deer are commonly used in animal-assisted therapy
- Animals therapy improves concentration and motor coordination, develops communication, empathy and social skills in maladjusted individuals
- Fish calm down hyperactive individuals, cats suit the elderly or patients with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disease and energetic dogs work best with children
- Pet therapy works well in special needs institutes, schools, rehabilitation centres, old age homes and hospitals
Dr Moosa has a way with patients. Quick to gauge a mood swing and even quicker to temper one of his own, should it ever surface, this therapist is a walking manual of bedside manners. Except, he walks on all fours. With his tail ever so gently a-wag.
In the room full of special children that this gentle labrador walks into, at Saraswathi Kendra, Chennai, one particularly toothy smile flashes at him. It’s V. Prem Kumar, an autistic 11-year-old, who can’t seem to have enough of these Dr Dog visits organised by Blue Cross India.
“He was extremely withdrawn and hardly ever spoke before we started him on animal-assisted therapy two years ago. He befriended Moosa, petted him, fed him, played with him.... Gradually, he opened up to us too! Today, he talks, writes and is always eager to play,” says Prem’s mother Vimala, showing pagefuls of her son’s enthusiastic scribbles and doodles (on “Mossa”).
Prem’s is no one-off before-after story. As practitioners in India would gladly second, pet therapy is slowly but steadily finding its furry feet in special schools, rehab centres and old age homes.
Ask Radhika Nair and Rohini Fernandes, both clinical psychologists trained in animal-assisted therapy, who co-founded Animal Angels Foundation in Mumbai. Their pilot project, started in 2005, with a lone ranger of a therapy dog and just one open-minded client—Skills and Ability, a school run by the Indian Council For Mental Health—has today grown into a 20-dog army (and one cat), taking on developmental and psychiatric disorders, physical disabilities and behavioural and emotional problems.
Bangalore’s Compassion Unlimited Plus Action has similar goals set out for it through its Canine Therapy Programme (which also puts rabbits, guinea pigs and mice on the job). Though its trustee Sudha S. Narayanan would give pet therapy another five years to really spread its wings in the country, her diary of appointments for therapy dog Charlie—a good old Indian mutt—is full. “Charlie lost a hind leg in an accident as a puppy, and that’s probably why he empathises so much with specially-abled children,” she reasons, adding, “Therapy dogs do not need a pedigree.”
Dr Chunkapura with a patient at the St John’s Medical College, Bangalore. (Photograph by Nilotpal Baruah)
Mary Selvraj couldn’t agree more. As coordinator of Sameeksha, a school for children with mild depression and learning disabilities (where Charlie is a regular visitor), Mary stands staunchly by her ‘Bangalore terrier’, Bingo, who, she says, “put little Latha’s life back on track”. “Latha came into this school as an 8-year-old with massive hyperactivity. She found it impossible to sit still for more than a few seconds. Being with Bingo calmed her down and put her more in control of herself. Years later, she has now settled well into a regular college, and believes she owes it all to Bingo.”
Little wonder then that at Animal Angels, Radhika and Rohini refer to their hardworking pets as co-therapists. Radhika explains, “Animal-assisted therapy is an effective ice-breaker with withdrawn and uncooperative clients who find it easier to interact with the therapist if a therapy pet is in the room. Having a warm, furry animal to stroke and hug is also therapeutic for clients who are not comfortable being touched by people, especially for those who have been physically or sexually abused.”
The science behind it is simple, as Dr Sunny Chunkapura, resident medical officer of St John’s Medical College Hospital, Bangalore, spells out: “When one enjoys being around animals, the body produces endorphins that encourage antibody production, which in turn, speeds up healing. It is a supportive therapy which enhances the effectiveness of other forms of therapy.” Patients at the hospital experience that first-hand, thanks to a leafy, two-acre enclosure for animals which he, with the help of the management, set up on the St John’s campus—a rare feat indeed, because in Indian hospitals, as distinct from those in the West, scrubs and fur don’t quite go together. “We started in 1998 with just a few small animals like rabbits. Now, we have sambar deer, spotted deer, rabbits, guinea pigs, and many species of birds like emu, African lovebirds, doves and peacocks, all procured with permission from the forest department,” he says. The most frequent visitors to this animal therapy unit are patients from the psychiatry ward, fighting off depression or moving on after a trauma.
But not all patients like to get hands-on with the pets. “The trick is to give them time,” feels Suchita Somashekaran, co-founder and director of Srishti Special Academy, which opens its autism centre to Charlie for an hour every two weeks. “We make the children observe what their peers are doing, and involve them in things like pouring out milk for the dog or setting aside an idli for it. Autistic children have a hard time deciphering human facial expressions and voice modulation, and animals, who demand nothing, put them at ease.”
Rohini adds, “When children with developmental disabilities assist in feeding, grooming, exercising and playing with our dogs, it promotes the development of motor and organisational skills. They also learn to communicate better in interpersonal relationships.”
So, the smarter the pet, the greater the benefits. That’s why Moosa’s owner, Nanditha Krishna, governing body member of Blue Cross India, stresses that at Dr Dog, all therapy animals, including those brought in by volunteers, are assessed on their tolerance thresholds and intelligence by trained veterinarians.
And that’s exactly what is keeping trainers at Bangalore’s yrg Care Centre busy these days. The centre for aids patients has just lost its in-house therapy dog Lara, leaving behind potential successors in two sprightly pups: and they playfully prance about in the winter sun, oblivious to the size of their mother’s pawprints that they now need to fill.