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National Dog Day: The importance of therapy dogs

To commemorate International Dog Day, we spoke with Pam Diamond, president of KwaZulu-Natal non-profit organisation Angel Paws, which provides therapy dog activities to special-needs schools, hospitals, frail-care centres, and a number of other NPOs. Pam highlights the significance and extraordinary capabilities of therapy dogs.

NATIONAL Dog Day is commemorated every year on August 26 to encourage people to adopt dogs instead of purchasing them from pet shops. It is also celebrated to pay tribute to these cute, furry animals who not only provide company and comfort to us but also protect us. We also acknowledge their extraordinary abilities and how they improve our lives.

History:

National Dog Day was founded by Colleen Paige in the year 2004. She is a pet and family-lifestyle expert, animal-rescue advocate, conservationist, dog trainer and author. On August 26, when Colleen was 10 years old, her family adopted their first dog named ‘Sheltie’ from the local animal shelter.

Colleen Paige has also founded other such days, like National Cat Day, National Wildlife Day and National Puppy Day.

Significance:

There are many dogs on the streets who are not getting proper care and treatment. They also lack proper food. Most often, they have to drink unclean water and search garbage bins for food. They even face abuse. National Dog Day raises awareness about these problems that dogs face, and encourages people to take better care of them and value the way they have changed many of our lives for the better.

Pam Diamond, president of Angel Paws – a KZN-based NPO that provides therapy-dog activities to special-needs schools, hospitals, frail-care centres and a number of other NPOs, by providing the love and care that these fur friends have to offer – knows first-hand how remarkable dogs can be.

Angel Paws

Diamond says the organisation was established in September 2021, and its main aim is to connect dogs with people. “Our mission is to offer Animal-Assisted Therapy, Animal-Assisted Activity and Animal-Assisted Education programmes, which bring together dogs and people.”

“We are an NPO, and all our handler and dog teams work on a volunteer basis.  The teams visit a variety of facilities such as hospitals, special-needs schools, rehab clinics, dementia units and care homes, to name a few. The dogs work alongside professionals and staff at these facilities.  Our dogs are the ‘therapists’, so owners are taught to let the dogs engage with the patients, children or residents naturally.  The humans’ responsibilities are to be their dog’s taxi drivers and leash-holders. We like to let the dogs read the patients, children and residents and decide, themselves, on how to interact with them,” said Diamond.

Angel Paws therapy dog Eddie with Angel Paws volunteer Larris Bhagwandin at a local frail-care facility. Photo: Angel Paws

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What are therapy dogs and how are they beneficial?

According to Diamond, there are different types of therapy dogs and a variety of ways in which they are able to assist people.

Animal-Assisted Activity (AAA)

“During an Animal-Assisted Activity (AAA), the dogs simply provide comfort, unconditional love and a general sense of well-being and happiness. Scientific studies have shown that animal interactions stimulate the release of the feel-good hormones in our bodies. These interactions are particularly beneficial for frail-care residents or patients and children who are struggling emotionally,” said Diamond.

Animal Assisted-Therapy (AAT)

“In Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), the dogs work one on one with a patient, or in an educational environment with a learner, to achieve a specific goal.  This may be in sessions for physical rehab, psychological rehab or in an educational environment, where a student is battling to grasp a concept or skill.  We have a school reading programme called ‘Paws to Read’, where a dog works regularly with one child to help improve their reading skills. The success behind this programme is that the dogs don’t judge or adversely correct when the children are struggling and in so doing build up their confidence to succeed,” she said.

Animal-Assisted Education

“Our Animal-Assisted Education programme is a programme we present to schoolchildren where we teach them appropriate ways to touch and interact with dogs, a bit about dog welfare and how to care for pet dogs, as well as bite avoidance and how to read a dog’s body language,” said the organisation president.

This is Zingi, a qualified Angel Paws therapy dog. Photo: Angel Paws

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What kind of patients do therapy dogs assist?

Diamond says therapy dogs can help various people from children to dementia patients. “We work with children and patients in special-needs schools and care homes who are battling either physical, emotional or cognitive challenges; patients in psychiatric units in hospitals dealing with addictions, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, etc, and dementia patients suffering from cognitive diseases, confusion and often loneliness. We also work with hospices and palliative-care patients.”

What qualifies a dog to be a therapy dog?

Angel Paws has a professional dog training process to coach volunteer dogs until they are fit to be therapy dogs. “All our working dogs are family-companion animals who work with a human member of their family.  If an owner would like to join the programme with their dog, we put them through an evaluation with professional animal behaviourists.  Here we test the dog’s temperament; their anticipated reaction to something that they may perceive as a scary situation; their ability to work alongside other dogs, and very important, the handler or owner’s connection to their dog and their ability to read and understand their dog,” says Diamond.

“If candidates pass the evaluation, they then embark on an in-house training programme with Angel Paws. The dogs get to visit the various types of facilities, and we watch for the dog’s reactions, preferences, stress levels they may exhibit, and the handler’s response to those as well as the handler’s approach to the visits. We help and guide the handlers during the training period and make any recommendations we deem necessary. Should the dog and handler complete the training process, they qualify as Angel Paws Therapy Dogs and earn their Angel Paws Wings,” she said.

Frankie is a qualified Angel Paws therapy dog who has earned his Angel Paws Wings. Photo: Angel Paws

Diamond says that in her time working with dogs at the organisation, she has witnessed first-hand how dogs have naturally intuitive, helping and caring instincts. “Dogs have evolved with humans.  In this evolution, they have learned to read us humans better than we read ourselves.  They can pick up when we are happy, sad, grumpy, delighted, annoyed, or anything in between, and they change their behaviour to appease or try and make us feel better in a situation.  I challenge you to observe your companion dog at home to see what I mean! In addition, dogs’ senses are amazing, particularly their olfactory sense.  Dogs can use smell to tell how we are feeling or even perhaps if we are ill.  If observed properly and harnessed, this is an amazing tool to help humans to heal,” she said.

Gabrielle is an Angel Paws therapy dog and has worked with children at local schools. Photo: Angel Paws

Diamond concluded that dogs are a blessing, and we should all do our best to love and protect them. “What fills my heart is the admiration I have for our working dogs.  How they give of themselves in the kind, gentle manner they do to the humans that they interact with is something that is very hard to put into words.  You have to witness it to really understand.  Dogs are incredible souls – we are lucky we have them!”

If you would like to contribute to Angel Paws, either in cash or kind, contact Diamond on 083 643 3046 or email angelpawssa1@gmail.com

You can also follow them on Facebook and Instagram: Angel Paws Therapy Dogs

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