By Anusha Parthasarathy
Dr. Moosa is a regular at Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre for Children. As he enters the class, the children crowd around him, excited and a little scared. He sits down and waits patiently as they approach him. “Hi! My name is Ashok,” one of the boys says shyly, adding “I like dosa. Do you like dosa?” Moosa holds out a paw and someone at the back says, “He likes Dosa too.”
Dr. Moosa is a black Labrador. Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre for Children, a part of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, is India’s first full-time school for children with autism, learning disabilities, dyslexia and behaviour and habit disorders. It provides a range of innovative therapies for its 175-odd students and one of it is animal-assisted therapy for autistic children. And what better animal to work with than man’s best friend?
“Autistic children have an inability to communicate verbally and concentrate on one particular thing. Some of them never talk. But when there is a dog, they feel a lot more at ease. We talk through the dog and encourage the children to reply. This not only improves their verbal communication but they also learn to concentrate. We have found it to be more effective than traditional therapy,” says Marlene J. Kamdar, the principal. Dr. Dog has been around for 13-odd years and remains a highly successful method even today.
Dr. Moosa is the seventh on call. One among the therapy’s best success stories hangs in the front office of the school in the form of a framed chart with the childish drawing of a Dachshund, 10 scrawling lines written in sketch pen describing it and ‘Pet Therapy with Sachin’ written in big bold letters at the top. “Sachin is a little Dachshund puppy… He has a body like a sausage…” it goes. It was written by an autistic boy who, after nine years of silence, spoke about Sachin the first ever time he spoke.
“You can’t have this kind of success with other animals. But even with dogs, the best breeds to work with are Labradors and retrievers. They’re naturally friendly dogs. The smaller breeds are unpredictable and though we did work with two Dachshunds, labs are the best,” Dr. Nanditha Krishnan, Hon. Director, CPR Foundation, says.
Dr. Dog sessions are two times a week for about 45 minutes. It is on a one-on-one basis and the dog works with three or four kids every class. During the course the student works with dogs in a planned way to increase desirable abilities.
Saraswathi Kendra, in association with Blue Cross, certifies these dogs and trains them for use in other special schools across the city.
“We encourage volunteers too. People can bring in their dog to work with us for the Dr. Dog programme. The dog has to be minimum two years old, healthy, vaccinated and must have basic obedience skills. A lot of people have volunteered in the past but they drop out soon because we insist that the dogs have to be sterilised to prevent aggression. But it’s imperative because one mistake could cost the dog and the child their life,” Nanditha explains.
As Dr. Moosa leaves the class, the kids protest for a few minutes and then watch as their doctor is led away by his handler. “This helps them learn to let go,” Nanditha concludes, adding, “But I must tell you that there is something about a dog that makes the child talk. No one knows how or why. But it just happens.”