Sunday 21 October 2012

Happy tails in therapy

The elderly and children can benefit from therapy sessions where they interact with dogs
By Lydia Vasko, The Straits Times, 20 Oct 2012

Mr David Ang, 61, waits in his wheelchair, looking uninterested ininteracting with anyone. Like many of the residents at the Bethany Methodist Nursing Home, he is wheelchair bound.

Then a dog comes into the activity room, crowded with 30 other residents, and suddenly he is more alert in his movements and smiling.

With trembling hands, he throws a tennis ball. Every time the golden retriever returns with the ball, he pets it, slowly, running his hand across its head and back.

Mr Ang, who has lived at the nursing home for five years, says the joy the dogs bring him is difficult for him to describe: "They are adorable. I can cuddle them, stroke them, brush them. They make me so happy," he says.

Pet therapy has been used for decades to treat various illnesses and disorders, from dementia to post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2010 study conducted by at Uppsala University in Sweden showed that interacting with animals can increase a person's levels of oxytocin, a hormone which helps us feel happy, trusting, and relaxed. This leads to benefits in physical health, such as lowering blood pressure.

However, other studies question the efficacy of dog therapy because it is hard to pin down the correct "dose" of dog therapy and whether its efficacy depends on a person's previous interactions with dogs. There is also a lack of reliable, definitive statements from patients with dementia.

But there is no denying Mr Ang looks forward to the dogs' visit every month. His favourite dog is named Stallion, a German shepherd, because it reminds him of the six alsatians he had when he was growing up."I wish they came more often," he says.

Every second Saturday of the month, a group of about 20 volunteers and about 15 of their dogs visit the Bethany nursing home in Choa Chu Kang, where patients suffer from a range of medical conditions from stroke to dementia to mental illness.

They are part of Therapy Dogs Singapore, a non-profit volunteer organisation which has been running these visits to Bethany and six other homes, hospitals and schools since 2004.

It is the only dog therapy programme currently operating in Singapore. Action for Singapore Dog's Touch & Talk Therapy programme also started in 2004 but stopped in 2006 - it did not have enough volunteers to keep the programme going.

Therapy Dogs Singapore has had more luck. Its volunteers have doubled in the past year to 185. The dogs belong to the volunteers.

The goal of the organisation is to share the unconditional love and affection of dogs with those in need, usually the elderly and the mentally and physically disabled.

It has two programmes. One is a monthly visit where volunteers provide animal-assisted activities.

Depending on the needs of the person they are helping, the volunteers will lead them through exercises such as playing fetch, putting clips in a dog's hair or walking the dog, activities which help mobility. Sometimes, a resident will just pet or hold the dog.

The monthly volunteers are there mainly for emotional support, according to president of the organisation, Ms Valerie Gan.

"The monthly visits are very casual. Volunteers just introduce the dogs to patients. They do not look for medical improvements," she says.

The other programme by the organisation is animal-assisted therapy, which comprises a weekly visit for volunteers to interact more closely with patients and a therapist to achieve physical and emotional targets.

Under this therapy, Therapy Dogs Singapore volunteers run an eight-week programme at Asian Women's Welfare Association Special School for Children. It takes special-needs children from the school through a series of exercises, such as walking the dog and playing tug-of-war. These basic activities have targets to achieve, such as teaching an autistic child to follow multiple commands at once or to build their physical strength.

Ms Jane Mok, 39, a Therapy Dogs Singapore volunteer for the past 11/2 years, has seen the children's progress. She says: "You see children who were scared of furry things, who refused to talk or to come into the room at first, or who used to sit there, quietly, staring at the floor.

"But now, as soon as you go into the room with the dogs, they start talking, coming towards you, petting the dogs. You can see that it makes a difference to the kids, even if they can't communicate it to you. You can see it in their faces."

Ms Mok, a freelance marketing project manager, started volunteering when she saw the effect her dog, Santi, a Welsh corgi mix, had on people.

When she adopted Santi from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2010, strangers and neighbours who had never said hello started coming up to her.

"They were smiling, saying hello. I realised she was good at making people happy and I thought she could make other people happy too, so I did a Web search on dog therapy," she says.

A dog does not need to have any special training or skills to be involved. The most important thing is the dog's temperament. Says Ms Gan: "The dog has to be tolerant of being touched - sometimes suddenly. It has to work in close quarters with other dogs, and has to get along well with people and other dogs."

Ms Gan has learnt about pet therapy through experience since joining Therapy Dogs Singapore as a volunteer with her shetland sheepdog Sable in 2010. She became the organisation's president last year when its founder, Mr Charlie Ho, resigned.

She adds that no breed is better than others for therapy. While big dogs are useful for physical activities, small dogs are great for people who are generally scared of dogs and are welcome lap warmers.

Potential volunteer dogs undergo a temperament test conducted on the last Sunday of the month by a professional trainer who volunteers his time. "We are looking for the temperament, everything else can follow. Even a chihuahua can be so useful. It lies there, a little cuddly thing, for the whole hour and the old women are happy," Ms Gan says.

Once the dog has been approved, a volunteer must be able to commit to four visits in six months.

You can volunteer even if you do not own a dog. About 20 per cent of the organisation's 185 volunteers do not have dogs. These volunteers are called helping hands who are there to aid the patients' interactions with the dogs.Ms Fiona Seow, 37, has been volunteering her time with her two golden retrievers Quinton and Reegan since 2010.

It is not all fun and wagging tails, though. The volunteers are expected to take initiative when interacting with the residents.

The lack of definitive evidence for the efficacy of pet therapy does not stop Ms Gan and her volunteers from believing that it works.

She recalls an early experience: "The first time I handled a dog at a session, there was an elderly woman who did not talk. She didn't want to touch the dogs but I was patient. After five minutes, her frown turned into a smile.

"It doesn't happen with every visit, it doesn't happen every time, but I know dog therapy works, even if it is not always tangible. And if nothing else, we bring joy to some people for that hour."

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