Youâve benefitted from the therapeutic effects of owning a dog, but did you know that the two of you can team up to help others too? Hereâs how
When Karan Shah, 20, wheels himself into his Mumbai residence at the end of a long day at his fatherâs retail outlet, heâs greeted by Angel. The exuberant four-yearold Labrador brings him a rubber toy bone, and isnât satisfied until he tosses it for her to fetch, and gives her a tummy rub. Shah has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a genetic condition that impairs the functioning of the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement. When he slips out of his shoes, Angel steps in to pull his socks off. And thatâs not all. If Shahâs mobile phone should happen to ring, Angel locates it and brings it to him.
âIâve trained her to treat the ringtone the way some dogs are trained to respond to âFetch,ââ says Shah, who learnt how to train Angel to be a therapy and assistance dog when she was just a puppy. His mother Pratima says that Angel entered their lives after her elder son Mihir passed away. âKaran and he were extremely close, so while it was an extremely difficult period for all of us, Karan was shattered. Mihir suffered from SMA Type 2, while Karan has SMA Type 3. That meant the condition, which they both suffered from, would affect them both differently and that its progression, too, would be different in each of them.â Karan started to worry that the condition would claim him, as it did his brother. Consequently, he went into a shell. He would go to school, but hardly interact with anyone. Not only did Angel help Karan cope with the functional limitations caused by his condition, Pratima believes it made a huge difference to her sonâs social and emotional functioning. âWhen you take a dog, especially a friendly one like Angel, out, people invariably come up to pet her or play with her. Itâs impossible to avoid social interaction.â He tells us that Angel offers therapy to others too, whether or not they seek it.
âDuring our evening walks at Worli Seaface, Iâd see this group of senior citizens just sitting around and smoking and chatting, when they were obviously meant to be getting their daily exercise. Angel went up to them once, and now, theyâve grown to love her so much, they take turns walking her every day,â says Karan, who has even conducted activity sessions at schools and homes for the elderly with Angel.
Indeed, Angelâs temperament â she actively seeks out human interaction â makes her well suited for dog therapy, says Shirin Merchant, who has worked as a canine behaviourist and trainer for 23 years. Merchant, who offers training courses for those interested in training their dogs to work as therapy dogs, and also trains assistance dogs as well as search and rescue dogs, says that the animals that are used must meet certain parameters.
Is your pooch up to the job?
âWhile some dog breeds like Labradors and beagles tend to be friendlier than others, thereâs no hard and fast rule that a certain breed makes for an excellent therapy dog,â says Merchant. âI have used my own Rottweiler for therapy work, and have also come across Labradors that bite.â Certain breeds like Chow Chow, says Merchant, are not bred for touch. But, referring to the American TV show Pit Bulls & Parolees, in which the breed that has a reputation for being ferocious is used to rehabilitate felons, Merchant points out that it really depends on each dogâs temperament.
Additionally, the dogs must be clean, well-groomed and healthy, and must not suffer from anxiety or be aggressive. âThe dog should have also been trained in basic manners,â says Merchant, âIt must sit, stay, and behave around guests; it must not tug at the leash when walked, and must be able to stay down for a certain period of time,â she adds.
The age of the dog is another important factor. âA dog, who is seven or eight, may not have the patience and the level of tolerance required for the job,â Merchant says. She also recommends retiring therapy dogs once they donât appear to be enjoying the job, or if they develop ailments. âDogs can have burnouts too,â she says, telling us that they pick up stress from humans.
How dogs help
Stress relief: Dog therapy, Merchant explains, can be used to help people recover from, or cope with problems such as mental health issues, disabilities, heart disease and trauma, or even to manage the emotional burden of diseases such as cancer. âInteracting with a dog in these sessions helps relieve stress, teaches people empathy, provides comfort and enjoyment, and it also encourages teamwork,â she says, explaining that a dog demands that you pay attention and communicate better.
They can lead by example: Ashwini Gupta, who runs Pathfinders, a pre-school in Mumbai, says that her school, which has students between the ages of 18 months and five years, has been inviting Merchant to conduct annual sessions for the last five years. âThe sensorial experience of interacting with a dog is incredible for children at these ages,â she says, adding that she has observed that the sessions teach children to respect rather than fear animals and also help them get over their inhibitions. âShirin uses the occasion to teach the students about things like hygiene. One of her dogs actually picks up litter and puts it in the dustbin, so aside from encouraging the children to do the same, the âwowâ effect cheers up the group instantly,â says Gupta.
Reduce anxiety: Thereâs research to back up these claims, too. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2012 showed that therapy dogs can reduce physiological stress, as interacting with them actually lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Improve motor skills: Merchant explains that dogs can be used for both âanimal assisted activitiesâ, which she defines as âmeet-andgreet one-time sessions, with no long-term outlook, designed simply to cheer people upâ, or âanimalassisted therapyâ, âwhich is a more planned session, where detailed notes and records are kept.â Merchant has seen the latter deliver great results. âIn one case, in which a child suffered from juvenile arthritis, and struggled to open and close her fist, or write, we found she was more than happy to brush the dogâs fur, button his waistcoat, put on his bowtie.â
Combat learning disabilities: For children with learning disabilities, reading to a dog is immensely beneficial. Research conducted by Sophie Susannah Hall and others from the University of Lincolnâs School of Life Sciences in 2016 also showed that reading to a dog can benefit childrenâs reading abilities by motivating the child to read more often, boosting his or her confidence and reducing anxiety. âWhen a child reads in a classroom, other children may make fun of him or her. He or she would become conscious and may not want to read. And, the less he reads, the less heâs likely to improve,â says Merchant, explaining that when a child reads to a dog, he or she doesnât worry about being mocked or ridiculed for repeating the sentence, and thus the child will tend to practice more often.
Boost morale: âTherapy sessions are also great for those who are disfigured, as working with dogs helps one combat depression, and boosts self-esteem, and can make you love yourself again,â says Merchant.
They can help combat loneliness: Mumbai resident Parul Dalal, who has trained her five-year-old Golden Retriever Leo to be a therapy dog, often takes Leo to nursing homes for the elderly. Studies have shown that interacting with dogs can be immensely beneficial for the elderly, as it helps combat loneliness and increases mental stimulation. Dalal has observed the effects first-hand. âSometimes, Leo will puts his head on a ladyâs lap and sheâll sing to him â even that half an hour is enough to bring a smile on her face,â says Dalal.
When you take a dog, especially a friendly one like Angel, out for a walk, people invariably come up to pet her or play with her. Itâs impossible to avoid social interaction
â Karan Shah