A feature showing how stray dogs are trained to help mentally disabled children communicate and empathise in Romania. Online at http://www.thediplomat.ro/articol.php?id=1644
New life for Bucharest strays in therapy for disabled
Facing death after a near-fatal car accident, Romanian street dog Gigica is now playing in therapy sessions with mentally handicapped children
Five-year old Costin is standing in a playroom with his arm outstretched – next to him, ex-street dog Gigica is looking up with an expectant, but cautious, expression.
“Come in closer, Costin,” says dog handler Emma.
The child – who has Down’s Syndrome – sits down and opens his hand. The dog moves over.
“Keep your hand flat,” says Emma, showing him how to hold his fingers.
He reaches out his hand, where a piece of frankfurter lies – the dog moves over and snaps up the meat. She barks. The child claps. He leans in and strokes Gigica, making babbling sounds as he touches the texture of the fur. The dog is still, on its hind legs, waiting for another piece of frankfurter.
Costin was abandoned by his parents as a baby – he cannot speak a word of Romanian and is living permanently in Bucharest’s Sector 6 children’s home ‘Sfantul Andrei’.
Gigica was seven months’ old when she was hit by a car that broke three of her legs. A passer-by took her to the Bucharest’s veterinary university – but after fixing the worst of her wounds, the vet was prepared to kill her. Then a member of staff called a Bucharest-based charity hoping the puppy could find a home.
When Gigica first came to see Costin in this pioneering animal assisted therapy programme, Costin sat in a corner turning a piece of carpet over, fascinated by the folding fabric.
Now he learns how to feed a dog, throw a ball, which the dog retrieves and enjoys putting plastic hoops over the dog’s neck – with the hound ready to assist for a treat of processed meat.
“If they are empathetic to dog, this allows them to be empathetic to humans,” says Victor Chitic, a psychologist who works with the dogs, handled by staff from Austrian-based NGO Vier Pfoten.
Depending on the needs of the children and how they interact with the dog, Chitic works out what could be the best strategy. What works is when the handlers and psychologist can show the child how action can follow communication. With three-year old shelter dog Tuca, six-year old boy Eric can command ‘Sus’ and ‘Jos’ [‘Up’ and ‘Down’] and see the dog jump on and off a table. This also helps teach the children control and responsibility.
“Animal assisted therapy borrows from play therapy – it is supposed to be fun,” says Chitic. “Kids do not feel that this is work, but play.”
But is it safe to leave a severely disabled child in the company of an ex-stray dog?
“We put the dog under a large amount of stress and make sure in any situation they would rather run away than fight,” says Chitic. “We have to make sure they feel comfortable with large groups of people and do not fight with other dogs.”
One advantage of having so many strays is they can choose from a variety of different sizes, shapes and colours. “One child was terrified of black dogs,” says Chitic. “Even when we found the smallest, cutest black dog, the child started to cry.”
Some kids in institutions can relate to the dog’s homeless status. “They learn that dogs get sick and dogs die – it prepares them for real life,” says Chitic. “But it also gives them hope. Someone has found the dogs, taken them in, cared for them and loved them. It is a positive example in a world where they do not see many positive examples.”
The handler and psychologist can sometimes use the dog as a vehicle to project the children’s own insecurities. With one eleven-year old girl experiencing her period for the first time, the female handler could explain to the child that what was happening to her was also felt by Tuca the dog.
But Chitic says that it is hard to assess to what extent the success of therapy is due to the presence of the dog or the interaction of the child with the handler.
Romanian NGO GIA is also visiting the elderly with a psychologist and rehabilitated stray dogs to help pensioners socialise through the animals. The presence of the dogs gives the veterans an incentive to get out of the house. It also acts as a trigger to allow them to reminisce about dogs they used to own, which keeps their mind active as the shadow of dementia grows.
Vier Pfoten is now looking into extending dog therapy to Bucharest jails where ex-strays can work with prisoners with small time convictions. The charity could teach basic discipline and dog handling – as well as responsibility and relationship building. “It is also about changing the mentality about dogs,” says Chitic. “When teenagers are talking about training dogs, they immediately think about training them to attack.” ■