Animal-Assisted Therapy. A day spent at Dog Assist Center

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Bes and Bruno have welcomed me as soon as I open the front door: there were two beautiful Labrador dogs, one black and one brown. Bes said “Hi” by wagging his tail and came towards me in a very happy spirit, but pretty still in the same time, while Bruno was jumping and  tumbling all around the room. Later that day, while I was talking to George and Camelia in the therapy room, full of toys, was Bruno the one who laid his head over my legs so i pet him and after several insisting looks (I had to ignore him so I can follow the conversation) he hit my knee with its paw, hoping that I would finally pay him attention. He is the baby of the family, who motivates the children who are doing Kinesiotherapy  and fine motor exercises.

To see a child’s smile, or to see that a child is walking for the first time alone, without holding on to another person, and he walks holding the dog’s leash, which is only a moral support and he has movement problems and it hurts him really bad when he rise he lifts his leg, but he still does it because he want to walk together with the dog and it is lovely, it’s such a nice feeling!

I was reading somewhere that dogs seem to resemble to their owners and vice-versa. Well, I must say that Camelia has a small figure and she is as slick as a whistle, just like Bruno is, she is also talk active and speaks very quickly “Here are the three rooms for therapy, here we do psychotherapy, personal development, here will be the room for kinesiotherapy and here is the loft, my favourite room. The backyard will be arranged like a sensorial garden, with plants, musical panels, mirrors. In the other part, where is the big yard, we’ll have some agility obstacles which are used for driving routes. They are specially thought to be used by dogs and we want to make it accessible for the dog owners from the city. ”

George, on the other hand, seems to be a more quite man, calm, with a massive figure, well built, but fluffy in the same time. He can give you a feeling of warm and kindness when he speaks. He looks alike with Bes, whom is a happy dog but also a very patient one (I was going to see that in the next morning at the therapy session with little Alex).

The end of 2016 find them in the first center of the NGO (which was established in 2013), a house found after several searches, which were constrained on one hand by some specific requirements regarding the space that was needed and, on the other hand, by the budget. Half of the house is unfurnished, and the other half still needs fork to be done like painting the walls or putting carpet on the floor. A part of the expenses are supported by the owner and the other part, meaning putting the “tarchet” (a special kind of carpet which is sterilized) on the floor, by the tenants.

The biggest satisfaction is given to us every day, because we got here and we succeeded doing so many things. In the last year, we only took care of this and our day starts somewhere around 7 o’clock and finishes around 22, 23, 00 in the evening; we put the carpet, we set the light-bulbs, we mount the doorknobs, carry around the furniture, because we can’t afford otherwise, we can’t afford to hire somebody to this job. It gets tiresome, but it’s such a nice feeling to laugh thinking that you’re knocked up, but you managed to do that thing that you wanted in that day, it’s extraordinary!

And then it’s Dersou, the third dog that George owns, the most energetic from the gang, the dog who was inside the Psychiatric Hospital from Cluj to bring joy to the people suffering from depression or other illnesses. I asked George and camellia what means to have the only dogs which had ever passed the tests of Etic Committee and fulfilled all the requirements in order to enter a hospital ? The answer consisted in several years of specific practice addressed to therapy dogs, the training of the dog conductors, an entire team of veterinarians who do periodic tests, and all this being made in a context in which therapy assisted by animals is not recognized as a legal form of therapy in Romania and it’s difficult to answer the question marks, which are understandable, or the skepticism and pre-made opinions. And till, for some children and adults this is the only form of therapy that had given results.

Are the therapy dogs special?

Special, no, But they do need certain traits in their personalities that allows them to be therapy dogs. There are dogs whom are really good at guarding, or dogs whom are good at finding truffles in the forest, or are good at saving, or at agility, and a therapy dog must have a strong desire for interaction with humans: he must come and say to you: “I want to be your friend”. A therapy dog cannot be aggressive and cannot be trained by aggressive techniques, like biting. It’s very important to be a balanced dog, who understand the external stimulus and you must understand the dog, and what he’s communicating.

The phases of the training for therapy dogs:

  • You can already own the dog and then you must do an evaluation to see what’s the starting point and what you need to do next. Or you cannot have the dog yet and then you go and select him directly from a nest. There are tests that evaluate the dogs so you can decide which one is a greater choice. There are exercises that you can do when the dog has only a few days of life.
  • The pre-training it’s the next phase and must be done for 6 months. It represents a part of socializing and a set of skills and commands that dogs don’t get yet to master, no matter the place there are or conditions. After they learn the basic commands like: sit, stay, lay-down, come to owner, refuse the food a new evaluation will be made in order to follow the interaction between the dog and the surroundings, between the dog and other persons and finally the relation between the do and the owner who will become his conductor. A recommendation will be made afterwards saying that you must or mustn’t continue the training.
  • After the evaluation, comes the real training period which must be done together with the dog conductor. They both need to get through the process together. The conductor must understand human psychology elements, dog psychology, to understand how the dog feels in certain situations and what sorts of reactions he can have depending on what he is exposed to.

What does therapy assisted by animals actually means?

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and the therapy session with Alex, a two and a half years old boy, diagnosed with ASD(autism spectrum disorder)  less than one year ago, it’s about to begin. I wait for them in the therapy room, somehow emotional because I haven’t seen before a child who is suffering of ASD. I know I am about to speak to the mother also and I am afraid I will be a bad interviewer, just like the one from the news who are asking the poor injured, that has just suffered a car accident: “how are you feeling?”. Alexandra, the psychologist that has spent her last 9 years treating children with all kinds of problems, especially autism comes into the room. Bes gets in also, wagging its tail with a happy attitude, as happy as he was in the day I first met him, and he comes together with George, the canine conductor (in today’s episode). So, two people and a dog were waiting  for Alex to play for the next two hours: “every game has several objective: even a simple game, in which we must feed the dog, can include the part of verbalization, the part in which the child must wait for his turn, the part of using his arms and legs and being active, the part in which we put food in all kind of recipients which are difficult to open so there is a level of frustration that he must learn to deal with, or the party in which he must learn to ask for help. “There are many  tasks that we want to accomplish in a game and the child has a great time, and it’s fun for him when the dog eats so he automatically learns with a greater ease, without even noticing and the transfer of information is very simple. The dogs, the animals anchor us and the children in present and make it more easy for them to stay engaged in activities.”, says Alexandra.

In the meantime, Alex and his mother arrive. In the front of the door, the boy gets seated on the small chair and his mother take off his shoes. He hugs her, lays his head over his back, laugh and says: ”mommy”. It’s not what I would have imagined that a boy diagnosed with Autism would do, but Alexandra explained me that they feel the emotion. But they don’t always understand them so they don’t know how to react to them, how to express them.

The mother leaves, and Alex comes in, as well as Bes and the child runs around the room a few times, giggling and laughing and going to every toy. The first game is about to begin. Alex throws the ball, not before to give the dog the command: “Bes, bring the ball!” He does not say the whole proposition at once, but word by word, repeating after Alexandra. In the meantime, Bes waits patiently for George signal and when the ball gets rolling in the air, Bes jumps towards it with great fuss. Alex doesn’t get scarred, on the contrary, he is having fun and he repeats the move. Again, he has to say the command and again he spell it word by word. Sometime, Alexandra needs to repeat several times “Ba.., Ball. Come on Alex, how do you say? Ba..” And Alex speaks the last part of the word and Alexandra does not give up until he says the whole word.

If the first game was simple for Bes, when the second one started I understood why the conductor must be present along the entire session and how important dog training is: “Come on Alex, let’s feed Bes.” The boy takes the dog food from the jar that is on the table and puts a small handful of it under 5 small boxes, each one of them having a drawing with an animal. In the meantime, Bes was sitting at about 3 meters distance together with the instructor. Alex must take the food from the box, depending on the animal that Alexandra indicates and must put it in a red, convertible car and drive towards Bes, where he puts the food in the dog’s special recipient for food: “Take from the mice. That’s it, very good! Now take from the little cow. How does the cow do? Yes, that’s right, very good. Come on, you only have two animals left. You can take food from the…pig. You say it also: pig! I will wait for you here, come on, little man, let’s hurry up before Bes eats all the food. Now put the food in the car.” The child puts in the car every piece of the dog food. I count 15 of them, being put very slowly in the convertible car, while Bes waits impatiently. The dog gets up two times and spins around with excitement, but George calms him down and commands the dog to sit. Bes listens, while keeping his eyes on the car. While the car gets closer, the dog salivates, literally. I don’t think I have ever seen a dog salivating before. But he waits, patiently. The car hardly moves. From time to time, Alex stops and looks to Alexandra and she tells him that he must go on, he must go and feed Bes because he is waiting and he is so hungry. The boy gets to the dog and now he has to put all the food in the dog special recipient. George looks Bes into his eyes and commands him to wait.

And this exercise repeats for five times, for each of the five boxes.

At the end of the session, I was about to agree with the child’s mother, who said that she doesn’t believe that Alex has “what they say he has”. That “In the end, we all have our own way of being in the world, our personalities, which are not necessarily similar and this is what I believe, that he has his own way of being which is not a problem.”, his mother told me. However, they started on having some doubts when “at the age of one year and a half he didn’t respond to name, he didn’t called me mom or his father dad, but I thought that he is little and he will eventually learn to speak. So we took him to the preschool and there he kept opening and closing the door, all day long and the employees told me that something may be wrong. We played with him at home “hide and seek” and we thought that was why he was behaving in that way at the preschool. He wasn’t completely disrupted of this world, but we went to the doctor where he did an analysis of about fifteen minutes, in which we told him his behavior from home and preschool, what does not seem right to us and they diagnosed him with Autism spectrum disorders (ASD). But I am not sure how can they give a diagnostics in only fifteen minutes. Anyway, we looked for a therapist and we found the ones from DogAssist, because at the time we were looking for a dog to buy for Alex and someone recommended us George to help us. He came at our place with Bes and since then, we’ve started the therapy.”

Therefore, what is saw at the therapy session it was the result of 8 month of hard working, because at the begging, as Alexandra, the psychologist told me, “the only thing that he wanted to be doing was to open and close the door. He didn’t choose any toy, he didn’t want to do something else. If the door was close, he went to the drawers and did the same thing. It was all that he was doing at two and a half years. And if you stood in front of the door to stop him, he got really angry. He cried, banged his head against the floor, through himself on the floor. What we did, it was to use Bes to catch his attention: when he wanted to open and close the door, we took the ball and we threw it to Bes, so that the dog would do quick moves, but large in the same time, which would had caught the child attention, in comparison to other games that did not caught his attention.”

What was the starting point for DogAssist and what else are they doing?

I go back to the night when I met George and Camelia. Outside, the day was gone and we were staying in, in the warmed room. While George was speaking, Bes fell asleep on the couch with his head under George’s arm while Bruno kept on playing with a disc that George was holding in his arm. I was seated at the work table, being a little bit reticent over Bruno, who decided that he hears something coming from my direction when he started to bark, but then he calm down when he came with its nose very close to my hands: ”We don’t afford to buy materials, because look, this game is 94 lei. And it has 4 things in it that you must put together. The other one, we got it as a gift. We started with five people, meaning three psychologists and two canine instructors. And three dogs. Now we are 30 people having all kind of specializations, starting from marketing, public relation, to psychology, physical therapist, canine instructors, vets and 12 dogs.” I asked George why had he devoted his life to dogs and he said that is too much to say that he did that because the dogs are the one who give their life to people. He always loved dogs and children. When he was 11 years old he became a volunteer at Romanian Scouts, in Bacau and at 16 years he was organizing camps for 40 children, and was taking them from Moldova to Transylvania. He volunteered for 20 years. Regarding the dogs, he used to pick them up from the streets and take them home, even though he was living in an apartment and his did didn’t agree with them keeping a dog inside. But he changed his mind when George brought a Pekingese. “We were bringing dogs inside from the block front yard and one day, we took a Pekingese from some children and gave to them, in return, two electronic games and that was the dog who changed the rules and made it free to other dogs to come and live with us in the apartment, because my dad was the first person that the Pekinese went to, when he entered the house.”

In 2010-2011 he took it seriously and started to think what could he do in the future that would imply working with both children and dogs. So he heard at the time of therapy assisted by animals, he went to special classes in order to become canine instructor, he trained and qualified his three dogs to do this kind of therapy and in 2013 they set up the NGO.

They offer their services free of charge and have a partnership with the Maltese Kindergarten where they work with children who have neurological deficiencies, and a collaboration with Providenta Association, The Community Center from Cluj where they have weekly sessions for people suffering from Alzheimer where “we work on cognitive stimulation, because having problems with the memory you need to do certain activities to improve it: for example, last week we put all kind of objects on a dog: a scarf, or an equipment and the dog came out while the people had to remember what the dog was wearing. And then we put them to do different tasks for and with the dogs. It’s very important for them to stay active.”

Therapy assisted by animals it is addressing typical personas also, who can be stressed, tired, or who want to grow as a person and they choose the help of animals for personal development: “we want to keep creating this kind of activities, that are fun and relaxing and we also want to raise awareness among the dog owners and to help them understand the whole range of responsibilities that come along with having a dog.”

They also have to face some challenges, especially when they have to pay the rent, because from 170 incumbents, only 12 are paying for the services. ”Sure, we try to find some financing alternatives so we can support ourselves, we look for sponsors, we try to talk to companies and to explain that they can have some advantages if they donate and we also write projects for getting funs.”

Good to know!

  1. Do dogs get angry with their owner?

I think they have moments of dissatisfaction, but for them it’s different. The studies shows that they need equal treatment, they want the same attention that you give to other dogs, if you have more, for example.

  1. In order to train a watchdog, is it recommended to use training by force?

No, it is not. A watchdog must only stop the thief (for example) from entering the perimeter. He must say: you can’t move further from this point. But it doesn’t necessarily need to get aggressive, or to byte. Anyway, a positive approach to training must be used.

  1. Is it recommended to raise dogs inside? Inside an apartment, let’s say.

For a dog, it is only then when a true, genuine relation gets created, when he lives together with you. It’s not the same if you keep him in the backyard.

  1. Are dogs allowed to eat “human” food?

No, not a chance. Unless you want to cook especially for them.

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