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Pills, paws, and play: The wonders of Animal-assisted therapy

The doctor is in. And he is striding along the hallway as he welcomes his patients with the purest of intentions and enthusiasm. He goes on with what he usually does—sometimes easing pain, but on good days, saving lives.

It’s enthralling and almost unbelievable how someone like him could perceive his job as something mundane and normal; how healing can be of one’s nine-to-five.

As clear-cut and objective the field may be, it is beyond doubt that being a doctor involves a little magic. In ancient history, healers cured diseases through spoken word. They were believed to be gods, possessing powers that were unearthly and sent from heaven. However, in this day, almost everything is explainable. We know that antibiotics fight bacterial infections and chemotherapy prevents cancer cells from growing. But although the world of healing is driven by science and technological advances, the mystique of healing has not dwindled.

Especially not if the doctor who just entered has a tail. And much to everyone’s surprise, the doctor has got shiny fur too. With his eyes widening and tail wagging, the doctor has touched everyone’s hearts and put a smile on everyone’s faces. And while skeptics may raise their eyebrows and snicker, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been found to aid and be an effective form of therapy both psychologically and physiologically. And though these peculiar new team of doctors may have an extra pair of legs, it will not stop them from healing those who are in need.


Dog-tor on call

As explained by Dr. Rohani Cena, a resident veterinarian at Communitails and one of the pioneers of AAT in the Philippines, getting involved in such activities has since proven to be quite effective in terms of providing a sense of calmness to patients and participants of the program. “We did a pilot run with students when we were starting out, and having interviewed them after the session they were really happy.” she shares. In the Philippines, AAT is still trying to gain a foothold in the community, and the most well-documented case there is points to the guidance office of Ateneo de Manila University’s coveted partnership with Bubu, the bright-eyed, shaggy-haired golden retriever and one of Communitails’ very own therapy dogs.

While Bubu may be the cutest doctor anyone has ever seen, a common misconception regarding therapy dogs is that they need only be “cute and cuddly” to qualify, which in reality is quite far from the case at hand. For Bubu, the road to becoming the esteemed dog-tor he is today was not an easy one to say the least. Dogs have to attend obedience courses and undergo intensive temperament training in order to become well-qualified for the role. Dr. Cena clarified that the number one thing they look for in a dog interested in assisting with therapy is their temperament, saying, “If the dog’s temperament isn’t good, they could end up hurting the patients, or even hurting themselves.”

It is important to note, however, that the dog doesn’t do all the work; their handler must be there at all times to oversee the sessions and interactions. While animal-assisted therapy is primarily focused on the wellbeing of the patients, the dogs do get tired as well. This is where their handler steps in, and they are trained to quickly assess how their dog is faring in the situation. Since they can’t speak their minds, their handlers act as their interpreter, and they can tell when the dog needs to take a break, or even when the dog needs to drink water.

While we have yet to know what goes on inside an animal’s mind—whether they seek meaningful work or not, dogs who love socializing with their human companions can benefit from AAT as well. And as long as proper protocol is followed and the safety of both the human and the dog is emphasized, then indeed, the therapy becomes effective, fulfilling both the patient and the animal. “It is a mutual healing.” Dr. Cena emphasizes.


The wonders of Animal-assisted therapy

When Dr. Cena along with the Communitails team benchmarked in Singapore, they met Telly. Though therapy dogs are more commonly found in hospitals, they found the Labrador-retriever in one corner of a school, interacting with children, all ears and puppy-eyed. This is when Dr. Cena saw the allure of these well-trained dogs. She watched young students who had trouble reading properly read with confidence when in front of Telly. Untainted by judgment and face painted with unadulterated joy, the therapy dog sticks out her tongue as if listening intently and eagerly. In return, she encouraged the students to read out loud without having anxiety and worrying about judgment.

What Telly can do with lessening anxiety and boosting confidence is not an isolated case. The benefits of AAT have been researched and proven over time; however, Dr. Cena stresses that in the Philippines, AAT has yet to be explored more on and this is one of Communitails’ missions as advocates of AAT.

While research on AAT in the Philippines is in the works, what is known about its benefits so far is promising. For instance, it was found that interacting with animals can reduce stress reactions, increased heart rate, and high levels of anxiety. And surprisingly, as if we have just found the elixir of life, having animal companions also increases one’s life span. Similar to the case of Telly, researchers have also found that AAT can encourage social interactions and help with social anxiety and stuttering.

In fact, perhaps this information is not as unfamiliar as pet owners think. For Dr. Cena, dogs are natural healers especially when it comes to one’s subjective well-being, and this can be observed even in the everyday life of a pet owner.

Whenever we come home from a tiring day at work or in school, the dogs impatiently scratch the door as we fumble for the keys and peek at the door even for a slightest bit.  They would always welcome us with the biggest of hugs and pick-me-up puppy eyes, and for some odd reason, the stress has been lifted off and the whole world seems lighter again. Now there are a lot of scientific studies to explain this therapeutic phenomenon, but for us laymen, the reason is simple: These are manifestations of their love to us. After all, who wouldn’t gladly accept the love they receive?


The future is furry

With incidences of mental health issues growing at an alarming rate and the successful implementation of AAT in Ateneo, the need for more human-animal teams increases tenfold. Last January 27, Communitails invited nine more human-animal teams to undergo training for the AAT program, hoping to have more success stories just like Bubu. The training program not only aims to have more therapy dogs in the roster, but also aims to promote responsible pet ownership and mutual healing for both the dogs and the patients. As of now, Dr. Cena and the rest of the Communitails team are seeking to partner up with more institutions to deploy the AAT program and garner the community’s trust.

It might sound superficial and hard to swallow, but the truth is—and both science and magic agree—cheering people up does wonders to their health. Animal-assisted therapy has been proven to have concrete benefits such as lowering blood pressure, releasing endorphins, and improving cardiovascular health as well as psychological benefits such as reducing anxiety and depression, boosting confidence, and increasing communication. Gone are the days of ancient gods and spoken-word healers, a new wave of doctors has arrived — and this time, they have paws.


Casey Margaret Eridio

By Casey Margaret Eridio

Celestine Sevilla

By Celestine Sevilla

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