"Therapy dog" is not a new term in western cultures. Since World War II, dogs have been trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, mental institutions and even disaster areas.
Here in Asia, however, the idea of a "therapy dog" is still new to many people. Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based animal welfare group, introduced the concept in Asia. Now, cities like Hong Kong and Chengdu all use therapy dogs, nicknamed doctor dogs. Our reporter Liao Jibo has more.
A therapy dog with children in Shenzhen [photo: dalang.gov.cn]
People in a classroom are gathered around a dog, pulling its tail, pinching its skin and snatching food from its mouth. It looks like they are torturing the dog, but actually they are doing a test for Dr. Dog, a program run by Animals Asia Foundation in China and other Asian countries like India and Japan.
"It's absolutely been around in the West for a long, long time but Dr. Dog was the first of its kind in Asia."
Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia Foundation, pioneered the concept of therapy dogs in China.
"I began Dr. Dog in 1991 in Hong Kong where street dogs and pedigree dogs were being thrown away when people no longer wanted them. And I just felt that people in the community would really benefit from understanding that power of unconditional love that dogs can bring in the society. And that's why I started Dr. Dog. And today, 17 years later, we now have 300 dogs working in communities in seven countries of Asia."
Therapy dogs are like furry psychologists, tasked with the job of comforting elderly people and people with mental or physical disabilities. They come in all sizes and breeds. However, the most important characteristic of therapy dogs is their temperament. A good therapy canine must be friendly, patient, confident and at ease in all situations. Most importantly, they must be gentle. It's a tough job for these mutts; they also have to be tolerant of human contact such as clumsy petting and handling.
Janice Johnson is a volunteer in Hong Kong with Animals Asia and one of her pet dogs was a licensed Dr. Dog.
"My dog is a perfect example. He has since passed away. But during one of our first visits to an elderly home, one of the residents whirled their wheelchair over his tail and he just sat there. He didn't jump up, he didn't move and it hurt him but he just looked at me and then when the wheelchair moved I told him that he can get up and he looked at me and I checked his tail like I said, it was a little sore but it was fine. In situation like that we need to make sure that our animals won't get upset. And it is safe not only for the residents and people that will be around the dogs but for the dogs as well."
According to Animals Asia's chief China liaison Yang Min, the Dr. Dog project was first introduced to the Chinese mainland in 2004. Now more than 80 dogs have been licensed as Dr. Dogs.
"At present, we have the project running in 3 inland cities, namely Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. We have a regular approval system. Usually we hold the exam once or twice a year, because some therapy dogs may move to other cities with their owners and some may pass away. And our approval rate is in accordance with how many organizations, such as nursing homes and hospitals, want to invite our Dr. Dogs."
As time goes on, more people have become familiar with the term "therapy dog" in China. And invitations the Animals Asia got is increasing year by year.
Miao Liping is a volunteer in Guangzhou. She heard of the concept many years ago but it was not until 2005 that one of her pets, little "Happy", was approved to be a part of the first Dr. Dogs in Guangzhou.
"I have 4 dogs in my home and 3 of them were abandoned dogs. They now have a relatively safe and stable shelter, and I thought if they could do something to help others, that would be a perfect return to the society. So I brought all my dogs to the exam and surprisingly, my little 'Happy' made it through. I was very happy."
Puppy "Happy" has been a doctor for more than 3 years and she has successfully done her job 20 times to date. She has been to nursing homes and orphanages for people with mental or physical disabilities. And actually, "Happy" herself is an abandoned gammy dog. Miao Liping still remembers their first visit to a local nursing home.
"That was the first time that dogs were allowed to be taken into a nursing home in Guangzhou and my little 'Happy' was one of them. When we arrived, the elderly were sitting in a circle, waiting for us. When they saw the dogs, they were as happy as if they had seen their grandsons and granddaughters. At first, some were a little afraid of the dogs and they only looked at them from afar. But some ten minutes later, they felt more comfortable with them, embracing and even kissing the dogs. And since 'Happy' is small in size, she was very popular among the elderly. The moment 'Happy' started licking their faces, they laughed. That scene was really touching and warm."
Such touching moments are seen thousands of times by Jill Robinson, the initiator of the project and also the founder of Animals Asia. She is very proud of her Dr. Dogs.
"I love our volunteers and of course I love the dogs. We are actually allowed into cancer wards, believe it or not, the people there that are very sick indeed and the doctors are encouraging these dogs to walk out to the beds of people who just react so positively to these animals. You know, here animals don't judge; they just give this warm unconditional love while expecting nothing back. And I think it really connects with patients. They just reach out and touch the soft silkies of the dogs. I'm enormously proud of the program because I think it's reaching a different level of community and it's providing a healing process sometimes people themselves cannot provide."
For Beyond Beijing, I'm Liao Jibo.