As the first face and mascot of Animal Angels I will be passing the baton on to Pepe, one of gorgeous young and promising therapy dogs in training. A one year old golden retriever, she is born to therapy dogs blond mom Kiara and dad Scotty. As Pepe starts to walk in my shoes, she has so many questions running through her head. She shoots some off to me and I try and answer them patiently. Excerpts:
You are my hero Goldie. How long have you been a therapy dog?
It will be seven years in March 2013! I began training with Minal when I was two month old. It seems like such a long time ago, but I remember it like yesterday when she first took me to the special child and taught me how to work with him.
Me and little Pepe
What is the training process like? How long does it go on?
Depending on how quick you are to learn, the training takes approximately a year if you start as a pup. As a puppy you have to learn to enjoy being with new people, in new places, being petting by strangers, playing gently without hurting people etc. You also learn about obedience and communication. It’s not as tough as it sounds. It only means you should learn to talk and understand your handler. Coz many times when you are actually working with a patient, you don’t have time for the commands and signals. It just takes a look for me to understand what my handlers –Aakash or Minal- want and for them to understand what I want. It is this communication and understanding that is key to being a successful therapy dog.
After that you start your training on field. You learn about children who are different in the way they talk, walk, look and understand and you learn to be compassionate with all. You meet people who are sad or sick and you learn to cheer them up. You may not get all of it at first but you should learn to rely on your senses to help.
Any particular incident from your work that has stuck with you?
I remember when I was still in training, I had accompanied my hero, therapy dog Kutty, to a programme where we met people who had survived or lost their loved ones in a train blast. The scenario was very new for me. Till then I had mostly worked with children. Kutty went into the room first, calm, confident, greeting everyone with a tail wag, letting everyone pet her at their own pace. When I entered, the room it felt so emotionally charged up, it seemed like people had been crying. I was nervous, didn’t know how to react. Plus I had never been with so many people. But I followed Kutty’s and Minal’s lead. I learned that even though the people were sad and grieving, they were very happy to see us. Our wagging tails gave them a reason to smile. I learned to relax, to understand that our touch and our wags were helping heal their sorrow. That really made me grow.....as a therapy dog.
Do you think I can become a very good therapy dog? What qualities do I have that suit it?
I can tell, you are already on the path, that’s why Minal and Aakash have already started taking you for visits. You are gentle, obedient and patient. You are learning to observe the humans around you and to respond to their emotions. Most of the times, humans don’t even realize what emotion they are going through. It is our role to make them realize it and help them through it. All these qualities are a must because as therapy dogs, we work with children and adults who are ill or hurt or sad. Just being there quietly, letting them pet us or read to us and wagging our tails makes a world of difference to these humans.
Pepe in training
Don’t you feel like running with the children? Barking in delight and jumping when the child reacts as you want him/her to?
When you see people in trouble, doesn’t your heart just melt? Mine does. I know I have to wait and be patient when a child takes forever to try and pick up a ball or trying to show me something. I recognize the trouble some kids have in reading which I don’t criticize. I also know when adults and children have been hurt and I know it is my job to pep them all up, to build confidence, to show love and to make them care about themselves. So yes, I do feel like whooping in joy when the treat comes to me from the scared little hesitant hands and I do so want to encourage and lick some children who have shown remarkable progress but I know it can scare them and that would be a disaster. So I let them take the lead and follow them happily. That’s what training teaches you.
We do feel like jumping and barking sometimes. It’s not what many people think that therapy dogs can’t have fun, that they are not allowed to jump, bark, beg and misbehave. We can be spoilt and pampered pets who roll in the mud or jump in excitement when we see our loved ones. It’s just that we know the difference in being rough with our owners and being gentle with the patients. We are professionals and can switch our roles from being a pet to being a thera-pet.
Is working with children different from working with adults?
Not very much except that adults listen lesser than children. Often, adults take longer to unwind as compared to children. The good bit here is that neither can pretend to be somebody or something else with us. If they are sad they let it show as they d when they are happy. Our job is always to pep them up.
What is your secret to success?
Like I said, it is all about getting into the mood. At home or at work, it is very important to put everything that’s in your head aside and to just stay calm.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love to meet children and to see the smiles on their faces when I just wag my tail. I love to see them squeal in excitement when I catch a ball in mid air. And these are children who may not get a chance to smile or play like other normal children. I feel that my presence makes their life better.
It’s tough to say what I enjoy most....but it would be the fact that like everybody at home has a job, I have many: I guard my home and love the people there as well as take care of so many others across Mumbai!
What do you do to relax?
I like a good massage and brushing from my mom, Meenu Srivastav. I also like to sleep in my balcony among the plants, watching pigeons.
Does exercise and eating a healthy diet help?
You must eat healthy and exercise regularly for your mind and body. I have a healthy amount of protein in my diet along with fruits and vegetables. I love to eat coconut and pomegranate, carrots, cucumber and apples along with a good meal made by Meenu Srivastava. I go for walks in the morning with my mom or dad. Walking and running together with your owner is the best exercise. It helps both to remain fit. We also go on the hill for a small trek sometimes.
Can I also recruit? What qualities should I look for in my friends so that I know they are capable of joining Animal Angels?
Of course you can and in fact Pepe you must. We need more angels to spread the cheer!
We need dogs who are:
- Not scared of strangers or new places
- And most importantly CUTE! (naa, just kidding)
You can be of any breed, any size and any age (above one year) as long as you are confidant, compassionate and obedient.
What message would you give out to budding therapy dogs like me?
Keep spreading the love, one wag at a time.
Written by Uma Karve (with inputs from Minal Kavishwar, Meena Srivastav and Aakash Lonkar)To know more about animal assisted therapy log on to www.animalangels.org.in