Animal Assisted Therapy: Rohini Fernandes and Radhika Nair are the force behind Animal Angels Foundation, started in January 2005.
By Nitya Satyani | Opening Doorz Editorial | December 01, 2016
Rohini Fernandes and Radhika Nair, Clinical Psychologists and dog trainers, are the force behind Animal Angels Foundation, started in January 2005. Being animal lovers, they always wanted to incorporate the help of animals in their line of work and this idea first occurred to them during their M.A. Course (field work) when they had to work in the psychiatric wards of various hospitals.
“We often had to work with clients who loved animals and the moment we would start to talk about animals, they would become more relaxed with us,” say Rohini and Radhika in unison. Intrigued, they researched on this area and found that Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) was a new field still in its infant stages in many countries. In India, no one had been using this as a medium of therapy. Both felt a need for this therapy and decided to start an organization which would provide AAT services. Thus was born Animal Angels Foundation.
Opening Doorz met up with the angels!
A boy with Down Syndrome lost his capacity to vocalize after his mother’s death. He also stopped displaying any emotion. He bonded instantly with Casper (our therapy dog) and even though he shied away from people, he had no qualms hugging and kissing Casper. After a few sessions, he uttered his first words: “Hi Casper!” he shouted when he saw Casper bounding into school one day. From then on, he was back on track.
Six-year-old Nimish, diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, gets aggressive. This does not allow him to focus on any task. However, within seven AAT sessions, his mother has seen an overall improvement in his behaviour. Casper helps him learn to respect others by moving away if Nimish is too rough. Nimish now treats Casper with kindness.
Seema is an eight-year-old child with Autism. She found it very difficult to interact with people, had a very short attention span and would never verbally communicate her needs. However, after she was introduced to Oscar, she became extremely fond of him and loved hugging him and resting her head on his tummy. Her attention span and concentration improved tremendously through activities like playing ‘fetch’ or walking him. She also started saying simple words like ‘ball’, ‘dog’, ‘come’ etc. These improvements were seen not only in the therapy room but also in her class and home environment. She also started playing with her peers and responding positively with her teacher who says that she is “Now a happier child.”
The early years
When we started, many in India were not aware of AAT. Our biggest obstacle was that institutes were apprehensive about our method. Their perception was: if human therapists could not produce much change in these clients, then animals would not be able to help them at all. For the first six months, we had only one private client. We kept giving a lot of presentations to special schools and institutes for people with mental illnesses to convince them about the effectiveness of our therapy. No one would give us a chance.
Then, in November 2005, a school for children with developmental disabilities allowed us a pilot project. We worked with four children for three months. After a month of AAT, the positive changes were visible not just to the staff but also to the parents of the children. The school then employed us as part of their staff and we have worked successfully with many of their children since then. Slowly, other institutes began contacting us. People have now become more accepting of our therapy. We now work in different schools and institutes in the areas of developmental disorders, psychiatric disorders, physical disabilities and behavioral/emotional problems.
The beneficiaries of AAT
Our biggest success rate has been with children who have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Developmental Delays, Cognitive Disabilities and Intellectual Impairment. When children with these developmental disabilities assist in feeding, grooming, exercising and playing with our therapy pets, it promotes the development of motor and organizational skills.
For children who do not usually participate in group activities, this increases their willingness to be involved in group activities. Our therapy dogs also serve as a ‘role model’ for children in terms of self-care and personal hygiene as they take turns in grooming and feeding the dog. Most of all, in caring for our animals, these children [whose frame of reference usually does not extend beyond themselves] learn to relate and communicate better in their interpersonal relationships. Our therapy dogs provide these children with the opportunity to experience internal and external sensations, something they are unable to do with other people.
Training the dogs
Our dogs are trained to be gentle and friendly. We select our therapy dogs through a temperament test designed by us that helps us see how they react to different situations like snatching their toy from their mouth, rough handling them etc. Our dogs are taught to walk away from a client if the client is too rough with them. We have created a niche method of treatment but we still have a long way to go.
Current work load and future plans
We work in 10 special schools and one mental health center for adults with mental illnesses. We have a team of around 20 therapy dogs trained by us for this purpose. We would like to start AAT in hospitals with children and adults with physical illnesses to help speed up their recovery process.
Research has repeatedly shown that patients recovering from cardiac diseases in a hospital heal faster when they are visited by a therapy dog than those visited only by relatives. Children who have been victims of trauma (burn, abuse etc.) take comfort in the warmth and love provided by a therapy dog. Even patients suffering from terminal illness benefit from the presence of a therapy pet.
Looking for therapy dogs
We are always on the lookout for more therapy dogs to join our team in Mumbai. If you think your dog has what it takes, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Nitya Satyani is a reader, dreamer, traveller and a shopa-choco-holic beyond repair. She is best described as a teacher by qualification, writer by passion and a mother by profession!)
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