#Health and Hygiene

Paws To Heal: Do You Know What Is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy
10.20 on a Saturday morning. Sarah and Harry, students of the American International School, stagger in carrying a white puppy. He brings the puppy– Johnny–over to his schoolmates, who are already busy grooming a bunch of wriggling puppies. Sarah bosses over them all, giving them instructions, as he grooms his favourite Johnny.

Their pace, is occasionally disrupted by Ms Solomen’s stern warning. “Children, be gentle with them”, says the tall, slender Ms Solomen, her visage and poise that of a typical British school marm.

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In another corner of the campus. Lying within her preferred square of cardboard, her sooty coat, dappled with milky patches, Sunfeast takes a mini-break. She is done with one session, and has time to go before the next; it is recommended that therapy dogs take a 20-minute break between sessions. With her extravagant, poodle-like ruff, mangy body and long tail, curved like a hook of a cloak hanger, she has come a long way from being nondescript mongrel, underfed, hit, kicked.

Four years ago, heavily injured Sunfeast was rescued from a roadside by team after her nose being slaughtered by a butcher.

“Traumatised, hungry and savage. This was she when rescued, lying in a blood pool by the roadside. She had to undergo a series of treatment for years,” says Mr Dawn Williams, the President of the Blue Cross of India.

Today, however, she is a responsible dog who heals hundreds to ease their existence.

It has been a busy week for Sunfeast.

After an hour’s session with baby Asifa( an autistic child, who comes for AAT), she sits, patient but thoughtful.
Tail and ears drooping, watery and tired eyes, and her li’ll pink tongue popping out weirdly. Probably thinking of how to deal with one of her regular patient, Mrs Green’s, anguish.

“Whoof! Hush, bow bow!”
Ow! That’s Jinny.

5-year-old Jinny Brown has been engrossed with Ms Anny Sherlin, woofing with her for the past ten minutes, changing positions through most of the conversation.

Entrusted with the responsibility to mentor 25-year-old depressed Anny, Jinny has been a good therapist now.

“Even after being severely twisted, turned and rolled, she has learnt to be calm and composed,” says Mr Williams.
Not less than four months. 27-year-old Mrs Sukruta is doing much better after being assisted by kittens Hannah, Poppy and more. She was recommended for an AAT by her doctor due to her postpartum depression.

“According to the latest Global News Report estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 5 crore people are victims of depression and over 3 crore suffers from other mental disorders. Around 42.5 percent employees in India’s private sector need help regarding anxiety disorders,” commented Dr Kamla D, a neurologist and a counsellor in Chennai’s Apollo Children’s Hospital. Commenting on the probable reasons of such health issues to be work pressure especially among students and job holders, doctors recommend the Animal Assisted Therapy to be one of the best solutions.

What Is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a structured program in which animals are trained to help and rehabilitate people with acute or chronic diseases.

Minal Kavishwar, a therapist, also the founder of the Animals Angel Foundation (the first organisation in India to practise AAT), shares over the phone that at time when she started this AAT, 14 years ago, there were barely any takers. Today, most corporates and educational institutions visit at least five times a month.

AAT is popular in the corporate sectors, universities, schools, basically places where people are constantly exposed to stress.
She also comments that mostly therapy dogs and cats work with autistic children or in old age homes, children with other disabilities etc.

Ranjeetha and her husband, Parvin are firm advocates of AAT. “We have a 4 -year-old autistic girl and she is doing really well after we adopted a dog according to the doctor’s instructions,” says Parvin. The couple are here to adopt another pet, this time they want to adopt a cat.

“Now we hope to see further improvement as we are taking home a cat this time. It feels good to see our child interacting happily with the animals,” says Parvin.

There is a widespread acceptance of the Animal Assisted Therapy among public, more than medicinal therapy.

An article by Tanaya Singh confirms that after the Mumbai airport collaborated with Animal Angels Foundation, three golden retrievers are doing a wonderful job in de-stressing the flight passengers in Mumbai’s Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport.
Pepe, Pearl and Sunshine has been a support and comfort to many, especially those who are travelling with lot of emotional baggage.

An article by Aakash Lonkar (a member in the Animal Angels Foundation) recalls a recent incident, where a passenger was stranded at the airport as her flight was delayed by eight hours. He comments, “She was extremely frustrated and upset. When she saw the dogs, she spent a good one hour with them. At the end of the interaction, she felt so relieved and said,” This is exactly what I needed-I just wanted someone to give me company.” It has been noticed by several therapists that children as young as three or four months, even people in wheelchairs, pilots and airline staff interact with the dogs and comes to nullify their stress.

Animal Assisted Therapy

Picture Credit: Sanchari Samanta

How Therapy Dogs Are Chosen?

According to Mr Lonkar, it is very important for any kind of therapy animal to be positive, confident and outgoing. The families who own the therapy animals, especially dogs are also given training to maintain their emotional state to such a level so that it can remain calm and composed in any environment.

A research in India, D Y Patil University and D Y Patil Dental Hospital, Navi Mumbai has partnered with Animal Angels Foundations to have a detailed study of how the presence of a dog reduces the anxiety and pressure level of a patient, undergoing a dental procedure. Research also proves that even a fish tank in one’s dining room can reduce disruptive behaviour and increase appetite among Alzheimer’s patients..

It is also a great way to increase concentration among humans, especially children and adolescents. Samratha, a therapist in the Animal Angel Foundations in Bengaluru, explains (over phone) the entire process of AAT.

Science has proven that animals have a capability to set off several happy hormones like serotonins, endorphins, etc. that creates a sense of positivity which allows the individual who is under treatment to build a rapport or a strong bond with the animal assisting him/her. This leads to fast healing.

Another article reported an incident where an 18-year-old girl with special needs, had to undergo AAT, as she was undergoing a trauma after seeing her father die by suicide. That girl’s therapist Radhika Nair explained how she suddenly stopped talking in the middle of the therapy. Turning aggressive. During the course of therapy, it was revealed that her uncle was, molesting her.

Nair also added that most of the children, undergoing trauma are unable to express their emotions to another human being, at the same time they confide to animals and surely when it’s a dog. Dr. Dhanapalan, currently works as a Vet in the Blue Cross Of India tells, “Animals who are injured or handicapped and has been rescued can be the best therapists as they have undergone severe trauma and can be the best to deal with it, when it’s humans.”

Picture Credit: Sanchari Samanta