By Dr. Nanditha Krishna
MOOSA and SHERRY were two black Labrador cross siblings who arrived in our home in 2002. They had belonged to an NRI who lived in the Middle East. Unable to take care of the one year-olds, his family members dropped them off at the Blue Cross of India. I was in search of a Dr. Dog after the death of my Dr. Jumble, so Mrs. Saraswathi Haksan, Hon. Secretary of the Blue Cross, decided she would drop them both off chez moi. Moosa and Sherry were very cute. When two bowls of food were placed before them, they would both eat from one and then from another. I realised that Sherry, the female would never make a Dr. Dog – she was too full of nervous energy. Moosa was placid and laid back, an ideal doctor. But we had to wait.
Pet therapy began at Saraswathi Kendra with Cleo in 1996 and Sachin in 2000-2001, two aggressive little dachshund puppies who became neurotic after their experience. Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre for Children (SKLC) is the first full-time school in India for children with Autism, Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, A.D.D., behaviour and habit disorders, established in Chennai by The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in 1985. Assessment, therapy, and education services are provided. It is affiliated to N.I.O.S. for Std. X and Std. XII and vocational education. SKLC uses innovative therapies like Yoga, Art, Dance and Movement, Puppetry, Pet therapy. It has unique facilities: A Soft Room, a Dyslexia Lab and Autism Lab. SKLC has pioneered the use of Animal Assisted Therapy for autistic children in India since 1996.
We knew pet therapy worked. Our first success story using pet therapy was with Sachin, the dachshund, who worked with Roshan Vishal, a severely autistic child who never spoke till the age of 9. His first words – at age 9 – were “Sachin, I had uppuma for breakfast. What did you eat?” Till then, nobody knew if Vishal would ever speak. Today, he studies in a regular school. But Sachin the dachshund was unsuited for pet therapy and became neurotic in the company of children. The pet therapy programme had to be discontinued.
It was not till Jill Robinson of Animals Asia Foundation – who had conceived and developed the Dr. Dog brand and product – came down to Chennai in 2001 to assess and confer the “Doctor” title to Jumble, my mongrel, that we learned to carry out Animal Assisted Therapy systematically. AAT works with animals in a planned way to increase desirable behavior, to improve abilities, to decrease undesirable behavior, and to help individuals communicate. It must be a planned programme.
Dr. Jumble and Dr. Babe, two earlier Dr. Dogs, had some outstanding successes, like Roshan Vishal. Dr. Jumble had her diet and feed checked by Sneha every day. Girish regularly asked questions about Dr. Jumble. Two autistic brothers started speaking to Dr. Babe, another Dr. Dog. Girish petted, played and spoke to the dog (about the dog) for the first time, at age 9. Abhirami, a very withdrawn child, began to mingle in a group after playing with Dr. Babe at age 8. Children wanted to learn more about breeds and looked up the Dog Chart to identify different dogs. Many with motor co-ordination problems started playing ball with Dr. Babe.
A Dr. Dog has to be at least two and spayed/neutered to be assessed. The siblings were below one. We decided to use the year to train them. Mr. Rangarajan of Woodstock Kennels was of great help. He trained them professionally. Not too much, and very kindly. They learned to walk, sit, lie down, come to heel, shake hands and generally became much more subdued. Siva of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation was also trained to be their trainer.
Moosa started work in 2008. It took a while to introduce him to the children of SKLC. He was big and looked ferocious, and the children were scared. Initially they feared touching him, but soon realised he was harmless.
Moosa’s first students were Rutunjay, Aditya, Saraswathi and Shruthi. The first two patted and kissed him, for they were used to dogs. The last two were scared. Premkumar, an autistic child, was terrified of dogs and refused to respond. On July 8, 2009, he patted and played with Moosa, a major step forward.
More children joined in: Pavithra, Amrutha, Akshay Anand, Swati, Deepthi, Pranav, Arjun. The children had varied problems: LD, dyslexia, autism, ADD / ADHD. They were given instructions which they learned to hear, obey, and follow. Take Moosa for a walk. Take him to sit under the tree. Shake hands with Moosa. Tell the dog to come, to sit, to shake hands. Count ten steps with Moosa. Swati, who had interacted with Moosa earlier, referred to their past association. Deepthi told Moosa how she had played with the dog in her house. Arjun was interacting with a dog for the first time and was very curious, asking questions about Moosa’s habits.
After some time, the children became bold, welcoming Moosa, taking him for a walk around the campus and so on. There was visible improvement in the children: they began to show excitement when he came, petted him, spoke to him and so on.
Then a new plan took shape. Each child was asked to introduce Moosa to the others on different days. This forced them to acknowledge the other children, a major step for the austistic. There were certain ways to maximize the positive effects:
• Asking questions – Have you ever had a pet? What is your favourite animal?
• Speaking through the dog – Moosa wants to meet you today. He is very excited to meet you!
• Asking the child about the dog – How is Moosa feeling today?
It was important to give the child and dog their personal space, yet allow for contact. The children were empowered to care for the dog (giving water, feeding), and using the dog as a focal point to encourage communication. The bond between child and dog is beautiful. When asked to write and essay on “My best friend”, each child wrote about Moosa.
The therapist had to ensure that children were aware of the dog’s needs and feelings, thereby teaching them to be unselfish, sharing (one child must not monopolise the dog) and caring. Children were allowed to talk freely about what they feel about dogs and other animals. Discipline and acceptable behavior was made clear. The children had to pay attention to instructions. This increased their concentration skills.
Dr. Dog has specific benefits for the autistic, such as
• Increase in verbal communication
• Increase in initiative
• Involvement in activities
• Indications of pleasure
• Increased co-operation with teachers
• Decrease in negative and stereotypical/repetitive behaviour, including temper tantrums
Animal therapy engages the attention of children with various learning problems in a way that conventional therapy cannot. They score higher on measures of empathy, self-esteem and self-concept. Cognitive and social development is helped. They develop a longer attention span, co-operation, and greater focus in the classroom.
Dogs provide unquestioning love and attention, relaxation and a healthier lifestyle; an outlet for care-giving, making children feel needed; stable and less complicated relationships, security and stability; and provide a link to the natural world. Dr. Dogs are non-threatening. They create a sense of capability – even superiority – in a child with learning problems and disabilities, who would hesitate to respond to adult superiority. They give unquestioning and undemanding love to a battered and unhappy child, and are very calming and soothing.
A Dr. Dog must be at least two years old and healthy; males and females must be desexed (to reduce aggression and tension); vaccinated up-to-date, with proof; calm and friendly by nature – no fighting breeds; have basic obedience skills; must have lived with handler for at least 6 months prior to examination; clean – not dressed up in costumes; and must be on a leash whenever he/she is with children.
But the role is also stressful. If the dog shows a reluctance to leave home or even move, a reduced attention span, pants excessively or has loose stools, urinates in unusual places, ignores commands, and shows behavioural changes, changes in sleep patterns and unusual activity, he cannot be forced to act as a Dr. Dog.
Moosa’s last few days were painful, with liver and then kidney failure. The children were anxious and worried. The day before he died, they all came to see him. He was tired and ill, but he put out his hand and shook hands with his friends. The next day – February 1, 2012 – Moosa died suddenly. We did not want the children to know, but news travels fast. All his students swarmed around as he was laid to rest under a beautiful flowering Canonball (Nagalingam) tree. They were sullen and confused. They did not understand death, but they knew Moosa had gone. They would miss their “best friend”.
Dr. Jumble and Dr. Moosa were my own dogs and, as the founder of SKLC, I was able to experiment with this programme conceived by Animals Asia Foundation at SKLC, which is next to my house, where Jumble and Moosa lived. But it has its problems. There are several schools clamouring for a Dr. Dog, but they are not available. It is difficult to find desexed dogs, since owners of gentle breeds like the Labrador hesitate to sterilize their dogs. Also, their owners are busy people who do not have time to take their dogs to schools during the day.
Dr. Dog is a very successful therapy programme which can change the lives of children with varying problems and needs. It needs the co-operative efforts of dog owners and special schools to function effectively.
Dr. Nanditha Krishna
The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation