In 1998, Shirin Merchant started Canines Can Care, an organisation dedicated towards canine-related activities in India. Structured on reward-based methods of dog training and behaviour, the organisation was involved in training of civilian search and rescue dogs, canine behaviour counselling, training and behaviour courses, and publishing India’s dog magazine -- Woof! They also pioneered the concept of assistance dogs in the country, who can aid the physically challenged by performing tasks that are physically demanding.
Recently, they paired a young Labrador named Magic with Sanam Karunakar, a teenager involved in a car accident, which claimed both her parents and left her paralysed from the chest down. Trained dogs such as Magic can do several tasks including picking up dropped objects, fetching the telephone, loading and unloading washing machines, switching lights on and off, opening doors, pulling wheelchairs and getting help in case of an emergency. A fully trained assistance dog can understand up to 50 commands. Merchant’s efforts have led to a team of such dogs who form India’s first official assistance dog team.
Merchant also became a fully accredited member of the Kennel Club of England (KCAI), holding an accreditation in Companion Dog Training and Behavioural Training at the advanced level. “It’s an amazing feeling to be one of nine people in the world and the only person in Asia, to have achieved this honour from the world’s most reputed canine organisation,” she says.
She admits that assistance dogs can help a wide range of people, ranging from quadriplegics, paraplegics, people with any kind of spinal issues, mobility issues, etc.
The training process is fun for these canines: “Dogs love the training because all of it is a game for them. Each aspect of this training is reward-based. The biggest challenge is to ensure there is no room for error when the dog finally goes to stay with his human partner. Some of the commands that the dog learns can be responsible for saving a person’s life, so the training has got to be rock-solid,” she explains.
While there is relatively less awareness about the benefits of assistance dogs in India, Merchant remains optimistic. “Assistance dogs are truly special in that they bring back self-esteem, independence and a sense of purpose to a human life,” she reminds us.