Article by Radhika Nair, Clinical Psychologist & Practitioner of Animal-Assisted Therapy, Animal Angels Foundation.
‘There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face’ ~ Ben Williams
Ever since I was a child I have felt a strong connection to animals. I grew up in a house where we were encouraged to respect every living thing and appreciate the beauty of nature. So it was no surprise when I chose to become an animal-assisted therapist. It combined the 2 things I liked the most – psychology and dogs! Not everyone gets to do what they love and make a career out of it.
Animal Angels Foundation was started by Rohini Fernandes and myself in 2005. Both of us had completed our Masters in Clinical Psychology and were keen to use animal -assisted therapy, a concept unknown in India at that time to treat people. We both strongly believed that therapy dogs could accelerate the healing process for children and adults and that our four legged therapists would bring a different quality of love and positive energy to the sessions. Rohini is also an animal behaviourist by profession and was in the process of training our first therapy dog Angel. We named the organisation after her.
We did not get off to an easy start, the concept of mental health was still developing in India. Alternative therapies were few and far between. We got rejected by a lot of organisations who could not understand how a dog could help their clients. However, there were some like-minded people who believed in this therapy and gave us a chance to work with them. From working in 1 school with 1 therapy dog we have grown into an organisation of 6 psychologists. We currently work in 12 schools and 2 mental health centres with our team of 20 plus therapy dogs. We work with children with special needs, emotional and behavioural issues, adults who are mentally ill & senior citizens with dementia.
This therapy is very simple in its construction, dogs provide unconditional love, something our clients don’t get very easily from society. Research has shown that just petting a dog brings down your heart rate, BP and makes you feel calm.
Our dogs accept them without hesitation, this helps the therapist to build rapport with the clients and help them through the therapy process.
Our work is a lot of fun and very satisfying, watching a child who has not spoken in 2 years talk to the dog or a child who is a loner seek out other children is a wonderful feeling.
People always ask us which breed of dogs we prefer. Our answer is always the same, breed is unimportant to us, the dog’s temperament is. Our therapy dogs love being around people, they seek out large crowds but are also happy to put their head on our clients lap and encourage them to share their feelings. They are very gentle and calm, safe to be around babies and the differently abled, but playful and mischievous when they have to win the hearts of our young friends. On our team we have Indian breeds, Labradors, Pugs and Cocker Spaniels. They all have one thing in common, they sense a soul in need, reach out to them and envelop them in love.
Those who have pets always talk about what a stress buster their pets are and how they help them leave their work worries at the door when they come home. We tried this concept out at offices and found that it works wonders. Especially with women at the workplace, who more often than not come into work already tired and stressed about their domestic situation. We took our therapy dogs to some offices, the employees were allowed a break to come and chill with our canine therapists. All the women commented how they felt refreshed after spending just 20 minutes with our dogs. They said for the first time in the day they enjoyed the moment and didn’t think about anything else.
Even after 12 years our fur therapists never cease to amaze us with their ‘healing powers’. Recently we were approached by one of our schools to work with an 8-year-old child going to regular school. This child had been through a very traumatic incident. Her father hung himself in front of her. The child had shut down, for months her mother and therapists tried to get her to talk and open up about what she saw but she refused to. She had not shed a tear. When she came for therapy she refused to talk to us but immediately took to our dog. She would hug him and play with him. We worked with her for some time gaining her trust and confidence. We used play therapy to try to recreate her family and get her to talk about her feelings. Finally, one day, in the middle of reacting a scene involving her father she went to our dog hugged him and started to cry. Through her tears she told our dog about what she saw, how scared and helpless she felt and how much she misses her father. This was a breakthrough, from here in she started to open up and talk about her feelings and we could help her to deal and come to terms with them.
There are many more such incidents of our clients feeling so safe with our dogs that they open up to them, and us by default, and make progress in therapy.
I only hope that we can reach out to as many people with our canine co-therapists and make their lives a little happier and brighter.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and may not reflect those of this organisation.