Furry friends with a cause
We speak to people from Delhi-NCR who affirm that canine-assisted therapy benefits social, emotional and cognitive functioning
With companies switching to remote working amid the pandemic, many employees started suffering from stress due to the blurring boundaries of professional and personal space. It was no different for Gurugram-based management consultant Vrinda Bhatnagar.
“My sleep was affected; I was dreaming of presentations,” she shares. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) came to Bhatnagar’s rescue; she booked sessions with Fur Ball Story (FBS)—a Gurugram-based AAT organisation that charges Rs. 2,500 for a two-hour session for individuals and conducts a few pro bono sessions—in 2021. “After a few sessions, I could actually feel the difference. The best part was that I did not have to speak about my problems [with the dog]. We would just spend time. The company was extremely relaxing for me.
In time, Bhatnagar’s stress reduced. She had started sleeping peacefully and would wake up fresh.
Cuddle and de-stress
Mental health concerns have increased post the pandemic. To help with such problems, individuals have started using creative mediums as opposed to conventional therapy. Spending time with a trained therapy pet has proven to improve a patient’s social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. Dog behaviourist Adnaan Khan, founder of Chhatarpur-based K9 School, says that AAT benefits children with special needs. “For children with special needs, how AAT becomes different from human-centric therapy is that, while interacting with dogs the child is able to open up much more quickly and without inhibition.,” adds Khan, who founded K9 Healers, a non-profit AAT vertical of K9 School that organises pro bono sessions for NGOs, old-age homes, and schools. FBS founder Animesh Katiyar says, “We had a session with a small girl who was under confident. She would barely talk. We made her read to the dog. That way, she would at least have one audience. After a couple of sessions she let us join in as well.”
Another advantage of canine-assisted therapy is the ability to strengthen human-animal bond. Avani Naresh from Rohini took his first session with a leading trained therapy dog at FBS—a Shih Tzu named Coco—in 2019. Naresh wanted to overcome his fear of dogs. “When they first arrived I touched the dog very sceptically. However, by the end of the session I had grown slightly fond. It was amazing to see how interacting with Coco could lead me to become a dog lover,” he says.
Indirapuram-resident Vaishali Srivastava, mother to Madhav—an 18-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who is part of Mata Bhagwanti Chadha Niketan, a school for children with special needs in Noida, with Caesar, a therapy beagle—adds, “Madhav had a tendency of throwing stuff. But Caesar would go and fetch it. Slowly the two developed a connection of their own and I could see that Madhav had started enjoying the time he spent every day with the dog. He would eagerly wait for it.”
Trained to care
Coco and three therapy dogs are part of FBS while K9’s regular therapy dogs are Stella, a Rottweiler, and an Indie named Phulki. These dogs are trained to be calm and not bark unnecessarily. “There are various individuals who book these therapy sessions. Some of them are socially anxious and some are scared of dogs. So, it is important to train the dog in such a way that they do not scare the client,” explains Katiyar. Khan shares that since K9 works with special needs, their dogs are sensitised about medical equipment.
Katiyar says that specific breeds are best trained as therapy dogs for certain needs. However, he adds, “If trained properly, any dog can become a therapy dog.” K9, on the other hand, works with dog breeds stereotyped as aggressive. “They go through a temperament test before training. I have had Golden Retrievers and Labradors fail the test because they are too aggressive,” Khan says.
Given the nature of the job, these dogs are given frequent breaks amid sessions. While a therapy dog’s work is to make people happy, they too have a threshold, which when reached might result in an irritable canine.
Khan says, “Most people are not able to read what a dog is going through in a therapy session. They should not be cornered or forced into doing this.”
A growing trend
AAT is among the newer approaches to therapy that is here to stay. “This form of therapy has helped Madhav in many ways that I don’t think speaking to a human could have,” says Srivastava. To create awareness about it, Khan concludes, “People adopting dogs and training them to be therapy dogs would not just tackle stray dog overpopulation but also help build the community faster.”