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May 15, 2011

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Dr Dogs work magic on patients

AN examiner puffed on the dog's face and ear, then dragged her hair and tail. The dog gave no defense reaction. These basic tests are used by Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) when they recruit canines to join Doctor Dog, an animal assisted therapy program that was launched on the Chinese mainland in 2004.

From March to April, AAF held its annual Doctor Dog recruitment examination in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu. Twenty-four dogs were eventually chosen to join the Doctor Dog family, which now has more than 300 canines. Among the 24 new doctors, the eldest is a ten-year-old (70 years old in human year) West Highland White Terrier.

Coffee, a four-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, was among the 24 chosen dogs.

As the examiner tightly cuddled the furry creature for five minutes, Coffee remained calm throughout. A fancy treat was given and then taken away to gauge Coffee's reaction. Loud noises were made around her, but Coffee passed every test with a placid demeanor.

Coffee was abandoned by her original owner after being diagnose with CPV, a potentially fatal disease to dogs. But her current owner took her home in 2007 and created a cozy home for her.

Now, Coffee is cute, gentle, smart and friendly. These qualities make her ideal as a Dr Dog.

The program accepts all breeds, including mixed breeds, provided they are healthy and have a happy, placid nature. Professional training is not necessary.

How it started

According to AAF websites, in the1990s, Western scientists had already started medical research on companion animals in adjunctive therapy on certain human diseases. Many physical diseases are caused by mental stress, but researchers found that spending time with companion animals created a tremendous sense of well-being while also fostering a positive outlook and increasing a person's self-confidence. The studies concluded that spending time with a companion animal, such as a dog, improved both the physical and mental well-being of people.

A 1990 study conducted by Freidman, Katcher, Lynch, & Thomas on the beneficial effects of pet ownership to heart attack patients proved pet owners had a lower mortality rate than non-pet owners.

In 2001, Professor Allen of the State University of New York conducted a study on people with hypertension. Patients exposed to companion animals were found to have lower blood pressure than the control group who took medication alone.

Measurement of heart rates also showed a significant difference, with 91 beats per minute for those without pet contact compared to 81 for pet owners.

Other studies also found companion animals help reduce people's stress and cholesterol levels, decrease the risk of heart disease and boost the immune system.

In 1991, when Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of AAF, was reading similar reports, accompanied by her dog, a golden retriever named Max, she came up with the Doctor Dog concept.

Days later, after several rejections, Robinson got the chance to take a dog to the garden at the Duchess of Kent Children's Hospital in the United Kingdom.

"Time and time again, my calls were rejected by people who couldn't believe I was seriously suggesting bringing a 'dirty, smelly, unhygienic mutt' into a sterile hospital environment," Robinson said.

However, that day, under the supervision of doctors, nurses and media, Max was allowed to meet disabled children. When a paralyzed boy laying on the bed was wheeled in front of Max, the dog stood up and put his forelegs on the side of the sickbed. The boy smiled. It became the first Doctor Dog case. And the smiles kept on coming.

Now, AAF has more than 300 dogs for animal therapy in Asian countries including China, Japan, the Philippines and India, with more than 100 on the Chinese mainland.

They make regular visits to hospitals, disabled centers, homes for the young and elderly, orphanages and schools, spreading warmth and unconditional love to people in need.

Many of these dogs are mixed breeds, helping spread the message it's not just expensive pedigree dogs that deserve respect.

"Seeing their faces light up when a furry visitor arrives is proof enough that the program is a success. We are told that chronically shy children or depressed elderly patients sometimes take on a new lease of life because of the Dr Dog visits," said Carrot Chen, a public relations officer for China Cat and Dog Welfare for the Animals Asia Foundation.

The effect animals have on sick children is especially impressive.

Xiao Huang, an autistic child in Guangzhou City who would only speak to her mother, was visited by a golden retriever named Buddy.

The child gradually began enjoying spending time with Buddy and taking walks together. One day, when Buddy was about to leave, Huang said, "bye bye."

There are other successful cases of how Doctor Dog has helped people, including an elderly man with dementia. After several visits from a canine, the man, who rarely spoke, cried "dog," according to Animals Asia.

Therapy sessions

Chen Baobao, a Shin Tzu dog at the recruitment exam in Guangzhou this year, was the first to pass this year's test, and also the first to start doing visits.

Early this month, Chen Baobao, along with her owner Xiao Chen, visited Haizhu Recovery Center in Guangzhou to meet children with cerebral palsy and autism. When they first arrived, all the children in the center seemed nervous, but Chen Baobao remained calm and cute, which in the end won over the children.

During the initial visits, the patient will observe the animal, sometimes they may even pet the dog.

After the patient becomes more receptive and assured, they will be encouraged to groom the dog or take them for walks. This can give patients a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.

A handler, usually the animal's owner, will accompany the animal and patient during the sessions to ensure no one is harmed.

In the course of this therapy, there is no standard set of orientation. Rather, it is believed that the animal-human interaction will allow the patient to open up and reflect on their issues in a non-judgmental environment.


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