The pupper is now in session: How animals help in therapy

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Animal-Assisted Therapy is a formal type of intervention that involves a session with a therapist, a handler, and a dog. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Two huge Labrador Retrievers rest on the floor, opening up for a belly rub from their handlers; their reward after a long day of work.

The dogs, Robbin and Arya, and their humans, married couple Mikal and Vene, are finishing up their assessment. Like other human-animal teams, they've just taken a set of tests that will determine if they can join a growing roster of teams that participate in a new form of therapy — one that involves animals.

The group that facilitates this is Communitails, an organization formed in 2015 by medical and veterinary professionals who dreamt of linking their love for animals with their vocations. Their main thrust is to promote mutual healing between animals and humans.

“Many of us grew up with animals,” says Ginger Ramirez, a health systems management consultant and board member of Communitails. “I remember [in] one of our first few sessions when we were starting this group, we shared our personal experiences growing up with our pets and how, I guess at some point in our lives, we felt that these animals, our pets, saved us somehow, and brought so much joy to our lives.”

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) is an umbrella term used to describe a number of ways which animals can assist in rehabilitating and caring for people. Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), which falls under AAI, is a more focused, more formal type of intervention where there is a therapeutic goal. It involves a session with a therapist, a handler, and a dog.

Animal-Assisted Interventions is not new in the country — PAWS has a “Dr. Dog” program that involves visits to rescue centers, orphanages, and similar organizations — but the team at Communitails wants to push the field forward.

Photo-9 (5).jpg Before joining a session, human-animals teams must undergo an assessment process where they’re given different scenarios that mimic possible situations that could arise. This is done to eliminate risks, evaluate the animal's behavior, and ensure mutual healing for all. Photo by JL JAVIER

“For us, coming in as medical and veterinary professionals, we thought, we could actually add more value to that … Because although the organizations were already doing it, it wasn't getting [as] much growth as we would expect,” says physician and Communitails president Carla Azucena.

The group is aware of the amount of work that goes into achieving this goal, and the risks that come with dealing with animals, so they are thorough with each step. For example, resident veterinarian and Communitails board member Rohani Cena points out the importance of documentation — every session and evaluation with the human-animal teams, every activity with students and participants, each response must be documented to gather evidence and prove the program’s effectivity.

Removing the stigma

Today’s assessment was conducted to help the organization scale up for future partnerships, but it’s also a way to eventually lighten the load of their three current therapy dogs — Bubu, Yogurt, and Doodle — who are all assigned to Communitails’ first and only partner institution, the Ateneo de Manila University’s Loyola Schools Office of Guidance and Counseling (LSOGC).

The partnership with the university is still evolving, and the organization wants to perfect it before moving on to find other partners. “There are certain things that we're planning with the [them] on how to utilize the teams, not just the animals but to activate these teams in order to respond to the needs of the students. Like when students, for example, have anxiety attacks, or how to contribute to lessening the stress during exam week,” says Ramirez. “So there's a huge range in terms of potential activities.”

Photo-2-3.jpg For Ateneo psych major Karl Corro, the decision to enroll himself and his pup, Apollo, as a human-animal team came after seeing the therapy dogs at work in school. "If he could maybe make the life of someone in Ateneo or anywhere better in the setting of therapy, then I would want Apollo to be able to make this difference." Photo by JL JAVIER

But they say that even in the first few months, the Ateneo community’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive. “We did not realize the great impact talaga niya to the students. Even just seeing a dog, kahit nga picture lang sa social media, parang na-release na ‘yung stress nila,” says physician and board member Camille Asuncion. “And ang galing kasi it's not just a one time impact lang sa group of students na exposed [to the animal], parang domino effect siya na parang you're spreading the love in the community.” 

In fact, both teams we spoke to at the screening decided to sign up after seeing the therapy dogs on campus. As a psych major, Karl Corro, says he chose to enroll himself and his dog Apollo because of how important mental health awareness is to him.

“I thought that if there was a chance that Apollo could do more good than just stay at home and help us, if he could maybe make the life of someone in Ateneo or anywhere better in the setting of therapy, then I would want Apollo to be able to make this difference,” he says.

Screening the Human-Animal Teams

The organization’s process of screening the human-animal teams is also comprehensive. Handlers must first learn about AAT and the importance of animal welfare. Afterwards, they undergo an assessment process where they’re given different scenarios that mimic possible situations that could arise during a session. Both the handler and the animal are evaluated based on how they respond.

From there, Communitails can figure out how the human-animal team can assist a therapy session. Above and beyond, animal welfare is their top priority.  

“We want to design [activities] that the animals enjoy, as well as something that they're not pushed to do … We may not know how they perceive, for example, petting, kissing. Do they like it? Dun ba ‘yung mutual healing? Or is it human lang ‘yung nag-be-benefit?” says Cena. “So it's very important that the handler knows when the animal cues na he's stressed already, or parang gusto na niya umuwi or hindi na siya nag-eenjoy sa activity.”

Another important factor is the animal’s history. Some animals with a history of trauma are more easily stressed and frightened, and thus harder to train, especially street dogs who have been abandoned or abused. Considering all of this also helps avoid risks like bites and accidents.

Photo-17 (7).jpg Communitails was founded by a group of medical and veterinary professionals who dreamt of linking their love for animals with their vocations. From L-R: Ginger Ramirez, Rohani Cena, Carla Azucena, and Camille Asuncion. Marc Edsel Ayes and Ronald Allan Cruz (not pictured above) complete the team. Photo by JL JAVIER

But they are quick to point out that dogs don’t have to be full-bred in order to become therapy dogs; the group welcomes aspins to join as well. What matters the most is the animal’s temperament.

The hope, Azucena says, is to make the LSOGC a friendlier place for students, eventually removing the dread of seeking help. “Counselors are not the first people that the students will go to. It's the last resort often and it's hard to help them when they're at that stage already … even if they're not interested in talking to a therapist, it's one foot in the door.” In a way, having the dogs at the guidance office gives students an excuse to be there, she says.

Before we finish up, Cena and Asuncion remind us that AAT is not meant to replace therapy. Instead, it is an adjunct to therapy.

When asked about their hopes for the future, Ramirez says, “I think it's in the name. To form a community between humans and beings with tails. Hopefully to minimize and lessen the stigma for mental health or even challenging people's thoughts about anxiety, depression, or even how we deal with people with special needs, or even children with learning disabilities.”

“We hope that with the help of our furry friends, we can be a little bit more compassionate as well and share that with the people around us. I think that's one [thing] that we have received from our animal friends or pets. It's that unconditional love.”

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For more information, visit Communitails on Facebook.