The K9 school healer team visited Udayan Home for Boys and Girls on October 8, 2017, as part of the ongoing initiative we have started on canine-assisted activities and canine-assisted therapy. Accompanying our two therapy dogs Stella and Phulki, were dog behaviorist and trainer Adnan Khan, who is also CEO of K9 school India, assistant trainer Srishti Sharma, and volunteers and “pet mothers” Sumona DasGupta and Karnika Palwa.
The K9 Healers project of K9 School India is a totally voluntary and not-for-profit initiative inspired by K9 school’s first therapy dog Homer, who in his short life had touched thousands of lives with his calm presence and compassion. Today the two young therapy dogs Stella, a rescue Rottweiler, and Phulki, an Indie (desi) adopted from a Delhi Dhaba carry on the legacy while other puppies are being identified and trained by Adnan Khan to carry the mantle in the future.
The aims of the initiative are:
Educating the Indian public on the idea and practices of canine-assisted activities and canine-assisted therapy which are being successfully used in many parts of the world in schools, homes, hospitals to address the needs of special children and provide supportive therapy to those dealing with grief, loss, childhood trauma associated with abuse, and a variety of cognitive, emotional and behavioral issues.
Breaking through breed stereotypes and working with rescue dogs (like Stella) as well as our own Indian dogs from the streets (like Phulki) and using this as talking points to initiate discussions on our own prejudices and biases in society. We want to send out the message that no matter what your color is, where you were born or what gender you belong to your love compassion and ability to share are what defines you. Our two therapy dogs help us disseminate these values. We deliberately work with a lovely pitch-black Rottweiler and an Indie (or desi) who was born in the streets of Delhi of unknown parentage, unlike pedigree dogs. Both our therapy dogs are females who are as good at their “jobs” as any male counterpart. We see this as an important social message in our gender unequal society where there is a marked absence of a level playing field.
Building a niche area of work with children to include children with special needs, children in need of care and protection, and eventually children in conflict with the law.
The introductory visits serve as icebreakers to just familiarize the children with our two trained therapy dogs; provide them an opportunity to slowly approach, meet and greet them; provide us (the K9 healer team) to observe their unique needs and manner of interaction and then customize subsequent visits depending on their special requirements.
Clearly, the follow-up program we co-design with the institution concerned will vary-for instance for children with special needs such as with our work with MBCN school Noida, the emphasis will now be on working with our dogs to encourage children to talk, read, walk, move, enhance motor skills and so on. With children in need of care and protection such as the children of Udayan Homes, the intervention will be more in the use of a psychosocial one encouraging the young girls and boys to work with themselves, their self-image, boost confidence and provide a safe non-judgmental space for emotional healing. For the older children, we could perhaps draw them out into discussions around societal norms and mores starting off from our two therapy dogs, what they look like, how they interact, what they represent. We do have a trained (human!) and experienced therapist who also volunteers her time with us and who along with our canine therapists and with the permission and consent of Udayan Care can actively facilitate this safe space for healing.
On October 8, 2017, we first visited Udayan Care Home for Boys at 4.15 pm. Since all the boys were present we decided to move to the terrace space to provide a more informal and open area for interaction. We did not initiate a structured session but initially just sat with the dogs talking to them, addressing them by their names, playing with them, feeding them little treats we were carrying. We observed that the little boys were the ones who came forward first. Little Deep led the group, and slowly bridged the distance, walking up to the dogs and holding out his hand. We persuaded him to shake hands with his canine friends and seeing that he too wanted to give a treat to the dogs we taught him to address the dog by her name and ask her to first “sit” and then offer the treat when she obeys.
This was a huge icebreaker (we observed him dancing around saying something to the tune of meine doggie ko sit karwaya!) and after that, some of the boys came up wanting to feed the dogs, walk them around the terrace with the leash on, delighted that they “listen” to them and actually sit and even lie down when told to. We observed that it gave them a sense of fulfillment that comes with another living being that “listens” to them without questioning and even shakes paws with them. They were amazed to see that the “black dog” Stella has a delightful “smile” and actually smiles on command! We observed their wonder when Phulki who has been taught the command “gently” ate a little treat off the palm of Deep without causing him the slightest discomfort. We had to stop him from excitedly over-feeding her thereafter! Many of them are now comfortable walking the dogs around, petting them, asking them to sit, and feeding them little treats from their palms. This familiarization session can be built upon in subsequent follow-through where more structured canine-assisted activities can be planned.
In the Girls Home which we visited at 4.45 pm, right after our visit to the Boys Home, we met in a closed space downstairs right after they had finished their dance class. It was interesting to observe that in a closed space the girls tended to huddle together near a line of chairs at the back when we came in with Stella and Phulki rather than milling around. Not unexpectedly, since it was their first interaction, there was hesitation and in one case even a bit of trepidation. Clear that there would be absolutely no forced interaction, we just sat in the background in the hall with the dogs conversing with them leaving it up to the girls to come up and interact completely at their own pace and in their own time. And very soon they did! The slow icebreaker was clearly what was needed. Like the boys, one child first came forward to interact with Stella then one of them moved tentatively towards Phulki. With a little hand-holding three of them were ready to start feeding the dogs and sitting with them!
The biggest icebreaker with the girls turned out to be the toddler in the room who boldly walked up, shook hands, and moved around the dogs without fear. This prompted many to follow in the footsteps of the cherubic toddler! Once they interacted with the dogs some of them also opened up to us and chatted about their fashion design course, the open school system, the challenges of learning scientific terms in Hindi! Aware that we did not know anything about the background of the girls and possible traumas in their childhood we took care not to ask them any questions even innocuous ones that could cause any distress. We simply followed their lead giving them space to tell us about whatever they wanted to about their courses, their work et al. No doubt the presence of the dogs in the backdrop created an ambiance where they felt comfortable to begin new conversations.
It is important to note that in this first introductory visit we did not know the boys or girls at all or have any sense of their background or even their names. In the absence of the officers in charge and mentor mothers in this round, we decided to follow a process of slow icebreakers and simply watch it play out. This strategy worked well. As Adnan Khan who has pioneered the project put it right after the interaction, “lovely session today. I think a slow icebreaker is an ideal start.”
Our general observation was that these sessions at Udayan Care can be used to build self-confidence and initiate a discussion on self-image and self-perceptions. The presence of a trained human therapist working in conjunction with our canine therapists and mentor mothers, officers in charge would help facilitate this. We have an experienced psychologist and therapist on our team and we can discuss the structure of the follow-up session and co-design these with Udayan Care foregrounding emotional well-being and positive mental health as the cornerstone of our approach.
We hope the pictures attached tell the story more evocatively than the words. We look forward to sustained interaction with Udayan Care!
K9 Healer Team
K9 School India
7th Avenue, Gadhaipur, Chattarpur 110074 firstname.lastname@example.org
+91 9910947783, 7814652240