But there's more to the therapeutic power of animals than making you smile on a bad day. Animal therapy - already acknowledged globally as a serious tool for mental and physical health interventions - is slowly making a mark in India as well. Although all sorts of animals, including cats, horses, birds like African macaws and in some places even plants, are used for this, the dog remains an eternal favourite. From treating people with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, seizures, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, autism, the pooches show us there's a reason they are our best friends.
What animals can do for you
Even at the best of times - and to the sanest of people - dogs are a tremendous source of comfort. "Dogs reduce stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression because they are a source of physical contact and comfort. This is mainly because of the deep bond they share with human beings, and qualities like unconditional love, complete acceptance and forgiveness they possess," says Mexican dog expert Cesar Milano, famous for his Dog Whisperer series on the National Geographic channel. "Having a pet ensures better health for an individual. Your cardiovascular fitness levels are higher because, as a dog owner, you tend to get more exercise just walking your dog than others," he said in an email interview.
When it comes to people prone to depression, or suffering from disabilities, the benefits from animals only magnify, says Nandita Nayer, a Delhi-based psychologist practicing in St Stephen's Hospital. "An individual's sense of well being is heightened because the time spent with someone who is so loving and non-judgemental. Nancy Tahana, a psychologist at the University of Queensland has conducted several studies that find that depression scores go down as a result of contact with animals. In the West, for instance, animals are regular visitors to old age homes, mental health institutions, oncology centres, paediatric wards, and even prisons, where people are prone to depression and mental illness. The contact with the animal, the affection, the feel of the fur does wonders for their self esteem. "In the United States jail inmates who have been sentenced to life imprisonment are given animals to rear, to give them a sense of being productive and contributing to society," says Tahana.
Interventions in India
An autistic eight-year-old child at a special school in Nerul, New Bombay had never spoken in school. His body language was rigid and he would flinch when touched by anyone in school. For two years, his school therapist tried to make him talk, engage with him but to no avail. Where all else failed, Casper, a two-year-old Labrador managed to break the ice, says Radhika Nair, clinical psychologist and practitioner of animal-assisted therapy who, along with her partner Rohini Nair, set up the Animal Angels Foundation in Mumbai in 2005. "Initially, he would only touch him with a finger, not even pet him. But eventually, he started petting him and his body became more relaxed. When I tried to pat him on the head, he reached out and touched my cheek. A few sessions later, he would scream for Casper, call him, say bye to him. He now speaks simple sentences," she says. In Chennai, Blue Cross's Dr Dog programme yielded a strikingly similar result with Roshan, a nine-year-old autistic boy addressing his first words to a pup called Sachin - "Sachin, I had upma for breakfast. What did you eat?"
Animal Angels has enlisted the help of a pup called Dexter when called upon to help people with depression. One of the main issues in depression is that patients oversleep, or have less control over their life. So Dexter was introduced to a patient as a pup who had the same problems as he did. That he overslept and had less control over his actions. "The patient who feels shunned and judged by society comes to see Dexter as a friend, and now focuses on Dexter's problems. In the process, he finds solutions which he can use for himself. He made a pact with Dexter: "Ok, you and I will get up at 7am". Similarly, a cat called Simba helped someone out of alcoholism. In Bangalore, Healing Horses, the country's only Equine Therapeutic Riding programme in India started by Pushpa. P. Bopaiah in 2000 has helped children with physical disabilities engage in sporting activities and accelerate their process of healing.
These therapy programmes work because the dog "places no expectation on the child" says Sathya Radhakrishnan, Blue Cross, Chennai. "The child feels open with them and is encouraged to speak, and open up," he says. Dr Dogs are special dogs; they can't be overtly friendly because they might jump on the child and scare her, neither too shy. "If the dog doesn't like something, like if a child pulls his ears or something, he is trained to walk away, but it won't bark or growl. We set goals for the week, in accordance with the work of other therapists working with the child, like the speech therapist," says Nair. "Animals, like music or dance, are great motivators," concludes Nair.
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