Doctor Dog: animals welfare through people welfare

Animal Asia of Hong Kong is an organisation working for the welfare of dogs across Asia. They believe that dogs, our age-old best friends, can provide a great starting point to ‘promote animal welfare through people welfare’ and give a much needed voice to all animals. The Dr. Dog programme has been started with one such vision.

It only takes one to start making a difference…

Twelve years ago, faced with repeated and heart-breaking scenes of cruelty and neglect across Asia, one very remarkable lady made a brave decision to start changing attitudes towards animals and share with others the special bond she had with her dog. Jill Robinson MBE (the founder of Animals Asia), was quite literally laughed at when she suggested taking her dog Max into hospitals to cheer up patients. Hospital adminis-trators were incredulous about even considering taking a ‘dirty dog’ into a clean and sterile environment. But one hospital gave her a chance and attitudes were to change with just one visit…

Max was granted one hour in the garden of the Duchess of Kent Children’s Hospital and a small, but willing paraplegic boy was wheeled out to meet him. Surrounded by cynical press and nervous nurses, Jill waited with baited breath as Max gently rose up and placed his giant golden paws on the bedside of the boy and was greeted with a radiant smile! It was a smile that was to secure the start of Dr. Dog programme and its subsequent place deep within the heart of the Hong Kong community.

Following in the healing paw prints of Max, Dr. Dog grew quite literally in leaps and bounds!

Today, the innovative animal therapy programme sees a team of enthusiastic volunteers and over 300 ‘canine consultants’ visiting hospitals, schools, homes for the young and elderly, orphanages and disabled centres spreading warmth and love to patients in need in not less than six countries across Asia – and all the time watched over with enthusiasm and endorsement from a growing number of medical professionals.

In an important new role as animal therapists, dogs are once again proving their loyalty and diversity by providing patients with a much-needed best friend. A friend who won’t judge them for the way they look or their illness but accepts them regardless of age, race, class or disability. The dedicated Dr. Dog give patients the feeling that they are most special, providing a unique source of support and increasing self-confidence with a positive outlook.

The success of Dr. Dog is not just about the ‘feel good factor’ – animal therapy is scientifically proven to work! Numerous studies in America, Europe and Australia have shown that pet owners have a lower reactivity to mental stress, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and a greatly reduced risk of heart disease than non-pet owners do. Physical, occupational and speech therapy programmes repeatedly find that companion animals help motivate patients to exercise and improve their verbal and coordination skills, as well as enhancing general mobility and social interaction. Simple exercises such as throwing a ball, brushing a coat or taking a new friend for a walk can bring meaning to life.

Dr. Dog has changed the lives of many people across Asia

From an autistic child who refused to open his heart and talk, to an elderly man with senile dementia, awakened from their silence by a visit from Dr. Dog: An excited cry of “DOG!” was the first word spoken by both patients. A call from a dying cancer patient for a last visit from Dr. Dog shows just how much the visits come to mean. Dr. Dog was unable to cure her illness, but gently granted a last wish from a dear friend. At a very basic level, they help to alleviate the tide of loneliness and sense of isolation felt by so many individuals in care. The programme’s impact is perhaps most striking in old people’s homes where the residents look forward to the visits with much excitement and anticipation, greeting the dogs like long lost friends! Residents save their breakfast ‘dim sum’ as a special treat for their favourite visitors and requests for the dogs to stay overnight are frequent – one elderly lady even asked if she could keep Max in her room forever!

Aside from regular visits, Dr. Dog also pioneers a variety of functions to share the unconditional love and warmth that dogs bring to society. The annual Dr. Dog Devotion Awards pay tribute to outstanding dogs in the Hong Kong community who have given their courage, comfort and in some cases their lives for people in need. The awards honour dogs as our friends and helpers, giving well-deserved credit for their unwavering loyalty and dedication. One special award winner last year was blind Dr. Ocha, a favourite visitor with children at the Ebenezer School for the visually impaired – she is an inspiration to the patients, bravely encouraging them to face their disability and a special friend who shares their hopes and fears.

An annual “Walk for Harmony” sees over 600 dogs join together with able-bodied and disabled members of the general public to promote a message of love for all animals in the Country Park. Each Christmas sees Dr. Dogs and their dedicated volunteers dressed up for “Santa Paws” visits, spreading festive cheer and sharing presents among hospital patients, the elderly and orphans, whilst Chinese new year is another very special time and sees Dr. Dogs distributing lucky ‘Lai See’ to bring patients good fortune for the coming year.

Animals Asia’s Dr. Dogs become professors!

Animals Asia’s Dr. Dogs have also recently taken on a brand new role as ‘Professors’ to teach local primary children about the importance of companion animals; compassion for all living creatures; safety around dogs and responsible pet care. The initial pilot programme sees over 300 children in Hong Kong taking part in 4 specially designed “Professor Paws” lessons, which aim to develop their English language skills and confidence, whilst encouraging them to make a difference as “Pet Cadets” and give a voice to dogs and other animals. The feedback so far has been incredibly positive – many of the children have never even touched a dog, but by the end of their first lesson they’re begging to have dogs at school all the time!

Friends… or food

“Friends…or Food?” umbrella campaign was inspired by Eddie – a dog who was destined for the dinner table. One morning, on an investigation to an animal market in China, the Animal Asia team found over 500 dogs being unloaded from trucks. Tossed like bags of rice from as high as fifteen feet, cage after cage of dogs were sent crashing to the floor – a tangle of broken limbs and desperate brown eyes awaiting their unthinkable fate. Amidst this sea of misery, they found Eddie – squeezed into a tiny wire cage with three other terrified dogs. Eddie was waiting to be slaughtered and gently licked the hand of anyone who reached in to give him a few seconds of comfort. Feeling utterly helpless they made the decision to rescue Eddie and bring him back to Hong Kong, where he is now working as a proud ambassador of the Dr. Dog programme.

Through pioneering ‘hands-on’ programmes like Dr. Dog that show first hand the love and friendship that dogs can give, Animals Asia continues to work tirelessly to bring about change and restore respect for animals. The Friends or Food campaign, an intensive public education programme in China is now underway which sees ex-market dog Eddie starring in his own VCD entitled “Dr. Eddie: Friend…or Food?” In this 16-minute video, Eddie tells the story of his rescue through his own eyes and asks the viewer to reconsider their attitudes towards dogs.

The success of the Dr. Dog programme spreading warmth and love across Asia is testament to the changing attitudes towards animals:

Dr. Dog was launched in Chengdu, China in November 2004 to an incredible reception. The programme made headline news with abandoned street dog, little Dali leading a new team of Chinese canine ambassadors, who were enthusiastically welcomed by local doctors and nurses into their medical team!

Through the healing power of animal therapy and thanks to the dedicated Dr. Dogs and volunteers, people are at last recognising animals as our companions, our helpers and our best friends.

For more info about Dr. Dog, Friends or Food and the work of Animals Asia, please visit www.animalsasia.org. To find out more about Animals Asia’s Dr. Dog partners in India, please contact: CUPA, Bangalore (cupablr@vsnl.net); Blue Cross, Chennai (bci@bluecross.org.in); Animal Help Foundation, Ahmedabad (bijoyshivram@ hotmail.com) and People for Animals, Ludhiana (jeevdaya04 @yahoo.co.in)

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