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Woof-woof! Meet the super-dogs with day jobs as four-legged therapists

It’s not just canines either. Cats, rabbits and even ponies are being used in therapy, to help battle depression, tackle developmental disorders.

more lifestyle Updated: May 27, 2017 00:22 IST
Anesha George
Aakash Lonkar, Mumbai head of Animal Angels Foundation, with his therapy dogs Pepe, Pearl and Sunshine.
Aakash Lonkar, Mumbai head of Animal Angels Foundation, with his therapy dogs Pepe, Pearl and Sunshine.(Satish Bate / HT Photo)

If Goldie were to update her resume, it would read ‘Can handle interns at their worst’. With Pearl, Myshka and Milo running around, racing in corridors and eating her snacks, she certainly has her hands… oops, paws… full.

Goldie is a 12-year-old golden retriever and certified therapy dog working with the NGO Animal Angels Foundation. With 11 years of experience, she is the most experienced and most decorated therapist on a team of 20, with a bravery medal from the Bombay Veterinary College.

“From being volunteer dogs for 7/11 blast victims to being reading buddies for children with development disorders and comforting stressed travellers at the Mumbai airport, our 20 therapy dogs have been carefully selected and are a busy lot,” says Minal Kavishwar, a clinical psychologist and founder of AAF, which has outfits in Mumbai and Pune.

So what does it take to be a canine therapist? Belonging to a ‘typically’ friendly breed (like the Labrador or golden retriever) helps. Temperament and personality are key, as is emotional stability.

You don’t have to be a dog, though. Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) may feature a purring cat, a fluffy rabbit, a pony, brightly coloured fish or even a donkey.

These animals act as catalysts to help patients focus, open up, communicate.

Vishal Kavishwar, one of the co-founders of Animal Angels, with therapy cat Cookie in Pune. Cats are ideal for adolescents facing relationship and behavioural issues, because they can help you learn to earn trust, and figure out how to deal with rejection.
  • Dogs are the most common therapy animals, because of their social temperament.
  • Cats are ideal for adolescents facing relationship and behavioural issues, because they can help you figure out how to earn trust, deal with rejection.
  • Rabbits are ideal for the visually handicapped and for elderly patients. They are small enough to fit into your lap, so they’re not overwhelming.
  • Ponies are best suited for differently abled children, children with autism. Their size makes them less threatening than a horse.
  • Donkey-assisted therapy is used in Europe to stimulate confidence and improve motor skills in special children. In India, The Donkey Sanctuary (TDS) in Ahmedabad offered similar assistance but is currently in the midst of a revamp.

“A child with celebral palsy who is wheelchair-bound will typically not be interested in physical exercise. But a game of fetch with a therapy dog can motivate her to try and move her limbs,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.

As with humans, not every dog, fish, cat or pony can be a therapist. There is, in fact, a five-step test to determine if a particular dog will be good at the job. How does a dog respond to people, noise, pushing or lifting? A calm, good-natured canine can be trained in animal-assisted therapy; a snappy or overly boisterous one cannot.


Interestingly, rescue dogs across a wide range of breeds seem to make better canine therapists. “Such dogs are extra intuitive and receptive to love because they were denied it in their growing years. Given the right training, they can be very good therapy dogs,” says Dr K Umesh, a Bangalore-based veterinary consultant.

In Bangalore, a three-legged stray named Lucy and a tailless fellow named Stumpy are the face of NGO CARE (Charlie’s Animal Rescue Centre).

“When we found Lucy she’d been being bitten by another dog and her left leg was badly injured. We had to amputate,” says Sudha Narayanan, founder of CARE. “Stumpy, another stray, lost his tail to a tumour on his back. Both have the perfect temperament for AAT. Kids with special needs and disabilities take to them and connect with them.”

Animal Angels Foundation conducts sessions with Scooby, a 2-year-old therapy rabbit in Pune. Since rabbits are not predators, they are much lower on aggression and more non-threatening.

CARE, founded in 2004, works with special schools and has helped over 300 differently abled children through the years.

While dogs are the face of AAT — and what a cute face it is — cats also make for great therapy animals.

“Cookie, 7, an Indian cat, works with our Pune team and Cherry, a Persian cat is associated with the Mumbai team as co-therapists in the AAT sessions with adolescents facing relationship and behavioural issues,” says Aakash Lonkar, Mumbai head of the AAF.

All in day’s work: Watch how therapy dogs are trained

  • Therapy dogs are tested for temperament and trained using the Campbell method, designed by American animal psychologist William E Campbell in the late 1960s.
  • A dog has to be above the age of two, so that it is physically and mentally mature, and must pass the 5 steps of the test to be declared a canine therapist.
  • The five steps measure social attraction (how it responds when someone at a distance is trying to get its attention); attention (will it follow the human readily, unbidden); restraint (how does it respond to being held down gently); social dominance (being held around the neck gently while stroked); elevation dominance (how it responds to being picked up, held around the chest). Source: CV Franklin, canine behaviourist, Bangalore)

Unlike therapy dogs who readily come to greet you, therapy cats are not pleasers. “The client learns to win the cat’s trust, respect boundaries and address rejection issues as a result,” says Lonkar.

At Intact Special School in Trichy, ponies Koko and Jerry aid students with cerebral palsy, ADHD, Down’s syndrome and autism in what is technically called hippotherapy.

These sessions consist of several different elements, involving a physiotherapist and a special educator overseeing the students’ interactions with the ponies.

“The children love to brush the pony’s mane and tail, sing songs to them, share secrets. Riding the ponies very slowly also teaches postural control, improves balance and concentration, coordination and even social interaction,” says A Bharatidhasan, a physiotherapist at the school.


A year ago, when a 10-year-old child from Mumbai with hearing and speech impairment was suggested AAT, his parents did not really expect a major change, considering that the child was very silent and had barely responded to other forms of therapy.

A child rides the pony, Koko, at Intact Special School in Trichy. Ponies are best suited for differently abled children. Their size makes them less threatening than a horse.
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Releases endorphins, which have a calming effect
  • Act of petting prompts a relaxation response
  • Decreases feelings of isolation and alienation
  • Encourages communication by creating a non-stressful, non-judgmental environment
  • Reduces self-consciousness
  • Decreases anxiety(Source: Dr Rajesh Sagar, psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi)

“Therapy dog Pepe, a six-year-old golden retriever, started attending weekly sessions with the boy. In six months, to his parents’ surprise, he began greeting the dog by calling out to him by his name,” says clinical psychologist Kavishwar.

It’s not all fun and games, though. Animals, particularly canines, can find assisting in therapy so exhausting that they must have a break every 45 minutes — at least 5 minutes to step outside, clear their heads.

“I can see the dog wilting before my eyes once we cross the 30 minute mark,” says Narayanan of CARE. “No session should extend beyond 45 minutes as it becomes counterproductive if the dog gets restless and impatient.”

Animal therapy can have a downside as well. “Dependency can become an issue, especially if animal therapy is used for longer than a year,” says Dr Sagar of AIIMS. “The patient, especially if it is a child, may get too attached, and could even affect their ability to interact with humans.”