How four-legged doctors help sick children
The fact that man’s best friend - the dog - can also be the best remedy for many varied illnesses, has long stopped being a scientific sensation. Whilst scientists are busy studying the phenomenon of animal therapy, a group of dog specialists from Murmansk has set about developing a practical use for it.
Those who grow up without a dog at home are unlucky, according to well-known writer and dog specialist, Condar Lorentz. Furthermore, if a child suffers from a serious illness, he is even more in need of a four-legged friend. Of course, not every family raising a child on a limited income can afford to take on the additional care of a pet. Precisely for this reason, a group of enthusiasts has created an unusual social organization under the name of “Baikes” in the remote polar city of Murmansk. Their aim is to train dogs for activities with handicapped children.
The recruitment of volunteers took place at dog specialist clubs and training grounds. Dog-owners readily responded to the call to help children, therefore forming a voluntary group did not prove difficult. However, the instructors, Tatyana Pashkova and Vera Nikitskaya carried out an extremely tough candidate selection process: the method of testing eliminated puppies that showed even the faintest signs of nervousness or aggression. The breed of the dog was found to be unrelated to its suitability for the post of four-legged therapist.
Other fundamental requirements included the following: the animal-therapist must be in full health, vaccinated and toilet-trained and should be well groomed and looked-after.
The main difficulty was that medical and social institutions did not show enthusiasm towards Baikes’s collaboration proposal. However, in May 2004, the manager of a charity for handicapped children known as Nadezhda, agreed to allow daily activities and after initial trials, volunteers were invited to the special needs school and nursery.
Most of the children did not have experience with dogs, so the smallest four-legged “volunteers” were introduced to them first. Different institutions care for children with different needs. The children at Nadezhda, for example, have been declared unfit to study, even in special needs schools, according to the current education system. In contrast, Child Centre No. 71 cares for children with severely damaged nervous systems, most of whom are wheelchair-bound.
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The young invalids sitting in wheelchairs lined up along the wall in a semicircle cannot take their delighted eyes away from the black whiskered little snouts before them. Other children are sitting on long benches around them. Irina and Tatyana let each child look at the dogs and show him how to feed them confidently, with an open palm.
When a child unwillingly pulls a dog’s fur, Tatyana carefully uncurls his fingers: the activities should bring only pleasure to all involved, including the dogs. Taking the child’s hand in hers, she strokes the puppy and a happy smile appears on the little boy’s face.
Fourteen-year-old Arsenii, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, particularly liked a playful, sturdy puppy known as Buba. Surprisingly, the puppy clearly preferred Arsenii to the other children from the very first moments. Their mutual liking was so evident that Arsenii was offered the chance to try out the role of trainer. Of course, Irina, Buba’s owner, tried hard to make sure that her help went unnoticed by the young aspiring dog expert. She whispered commands and guided Arsenii’s actions. The young boy tried his hardest and succeeded brilliantly in his task.
Activities in the nursery where the most difficult children are looked after are generally based on contact between the children and the animals. The simplest exercises, such as walking a dog around the hall on a lead, bring great pleasure to the children. For children in wheelchairs, the lead is attached to the arm of their chair. The child should feel that he himself is independently leading the dog. Another favorite activity is stroking the “therapist”. The ill children’s cold hands warm up when they repeatedly stroke the dog’s fur and muscular spasticity (tension) diminishes.
In the end, the children have made new four-legged friends and each child brings biscuits to the lessons with which to treat “his” dog. Zinaida Kulbaba has taught his rottweiler, Tina, to play “Little Dog” and one only has to see the delight in the eyes of the little boy sitting in his wheelchair, as the strong puppy obligingly carries out his commands.
“Already Baikes has been visiting us every week for a year,” the senior carer at Child Centre No. 71 informs us. Before the first lesson, we held a meeting with the parents and found out whether their children were allergic to animal fur and checked that they were not against such activities, and only after this did we make a decision. This is a priceless experience for us. Most of the children are confined indoors and many had never seen animals before. Dogs heal our children simply with their presence – they improve their mood. In addition, children with Cerebral Spastic Infantile Paralysis (of which there are several at our centre) are restricted in their movement and for them, playing with a dog is a form of healthy exercise and physiotherapy. The child feels motivated to move, he wants to act independently. The awareness of the fact that the dog is obeying them increases their self-confidence. Altogether, this leads to the correction of movement and speech related and mental impediments.
Translated by Leila Wilmers
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