If you’re in a good mood after cuddling a friendly Labrador at the T2 terminal, you have Animal Angels to thank. From de-stressing weary flyers to helping special kids, the NGO is highlighting the benefits of animal-aided therapy
In 2003, clinical psychology student, and canine behaviourist, Minal Lonkar-Kavishwar, started Animal Angels, along with like-minded people who could gauge the healing power of pets.
Passengers at the T2 terminal, enjoy play time with therapy dogs
This was for a project initiated by Shyamashree Bhosle, Principal of Dharmaveer Anand Dhige Jidd Special School in Thane. Bhosle wanted to train a dog for the mentally challenged children at the school. A pup called Kutty from a family in Bangalore was the chosen one.
Sunshine and Pepe
Initially, the pup was just a companion for students at the school. Kavishwar believed that since the school was for the mentally challenged; the dog could be trained to be more than just a companion. At that time, the concept of therapy dogs was unknown.
The children showed more tolerance, their motor skills and their attention spans improved. In fact, children who were thought to be speech impaired spoke their first words to Kutty. Others would come to school just to be with Kutty while students who were aloof began to show signs of socialising.
"Kutty would give them unconditional love and support which society did not. He wouldn’t mock them," recalls Kavishwar. These therapy dogs also worked with children in juvenile homes and those kids showed remarkable development.
Having witnessed immense promise with their first project, Animal Angels began to train various therapy dogs and handlers to help in special schools, hospitals, psychiatric clinics, trauma relief programs and other centres across Mumbai, Pune, Delhi and Bangalore.
Therapy on touchdown
Cut to 2015. Goldie, Pepe and Sunshine are three female golden retrievers who help anxious passengers at the T2 terminal at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport airport, relieve their stress.
“The Mumbai Airport Authority initiated this project to help passengers. We are trying out a pilot programme, where we visit the terminal from 6 pm to 12 pm on weekends. Most passengers have a broad smile when they see the dogs.
After playing with the dogs they tell us about how stressed they were. Some have missed a flight, others have been travelling with emotional baggage, and some are physically tired after long flights. The interaction with the dogs relaxes them and helps them open up,” informs Akash Lonkar, director Animal Angels Foundation.
"A Chicago-bound flier was the first person to meet Goldie and Pepe. He had missed his flight. He had returned to India after 25 years, for his mother's funeral. In his feedback form, the traveller said that he had a painful day at the Mumbai airport, and Goldie and Pepe brought 'humanity' into an otherwise de-humanising experience.
Nitin Vijay Adarkar, who was at the International airport last month, told us that he felt refreshed. He stated, “It is the bright spot and the moment to unwind in a long tiring day.’ Previously, in 2006-07, Animal Angels had introduced reading programmes in schools and with a popular chain of bookstores where children could read to therapy dogs.
"We started this project to create awareness about the human-animal relationship. Therapy dogs not only help people with disabilities but also regular people. When a child makes a mistake while reading, a giggle from his friends can make him nervous and conscious, hampering his growth. Reading to dogs builds their confidence," shares Kavishwar.
Canines with a cause
Kavishwar’s team works with families who volunteer their pets as therapy dogs. "We train a member of the family to be the dog handler. The first step is to test the dog’s temperament, irrespective of the breed.
The dog is then given obedience training. Post which, he is taken to different locations. Many dogs are comfortable in the house but as soon as they are out of their comfort zone and see too many strangers, they can’t handle it. Hence, it is important to train them across situations," explains Lonkar.
"Therapy dogs sense every human emotion, even before the person realises how they are feeling. They don’t wait for the human to initiate the interaction. If they sense that a person is sad or low, the nudge and ask to be petted and sometimes, are just quiet companions. They can sense hormonal changes too," reveals Kavishwar.
>> One of the first airports to introduce this was Mineta San Jose, after the 9/11 attacks in the US, when an airport pastor brought in his own dog to help stressed-out flyers.
>> Los Angeles International Airport has about 30 dogs that roam the terminals at any given time as part of the Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) programme.
>> On December 3, San Francisco International Airport launched Wag Brigade, to bring trained dogs to the terminals to make passenger travel more enjoyable. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals brings dogs, certified through their Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Program, to roam the terminals.
>> Edmonton International Airport (EIA) in Alberta, Canada also welcomes therapy dogs into its terminal.
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