COVID-19 has upended mental health services across the country for over a year. While most city-based therapists have migrated online, children with special needs and some adults with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities cannot avail these services with equal ease.
Before the pandemic, in Mumbai and Pune, some groups attended in-person, animal-assisted therapy sessions, conducted by the Animal Angels Foundation (AAF). Dogs, an eclectic mix of Indian breeds, labradors, golden retrievers , a cocker spaniel and a beagle, aged between two and seven years, visited about 50 children and 25 adults across 12 special schools, 10 private homes, a mental health centre and a hospital, on a weekly basis. But how do you take the very visceral experience of animal-assisted therapy, online?
Radhika Nair, founder, Animal Angels Foundation explains how lockdowns initially impacted the patient population, “The children had difficulty processing it and some of them found it difficult to communicate and express themselves. Parents have been talking about restlessness, increased hyperactivity, increased emotional sensitivity (meltdowns) and some instances of acting out (aggression).”
A virtual interaction
In a typical in-person session, a client — either child, adult or senior — would get to feed, pet or play with the animal. The interaction is facilitated by a therapist. How do you replicate this experience in a virtual session? “A major change is that now the dog is viewed through the camera and we have to adapt the activities that we do with the dog to this new version. Virtual sessions don’t make much of a difference to the canines because they are taking cues from the therapist /facilitator. All they have to do is sit in front of a screen and we have to manipulate their behaviour, so the clients feel that the dog is listening and responding to them. The animals per se don’t respond to a screen, and don’t know where the sound is coming from if the client calls out to them. However we cannot replace petting, brushing and feeding the dog,” laments Radhika.
Access to virtual sessions much like digital schooling is not equally distributed among all sections of the society. Some parents cannot afford smartphones or they are being used by a sibling going to a regular school. The other reason is that it is difficult to sustain children’s attention over an online medium.
It has been a difficult transition for adults as well. For older clients, their daily visit to the mental health centres was the highlight of their routine. Many of them come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and cannot afford a smartphone, their only connection to their social workers, case workers, therapists and friends.
- Tails of Joy , is an animal-assisted reading programme by AAF that enhances literacy skills through interaction with trained animals. At a typical reading session, a therapy dog is introduced as a ‘reading buddy’— a dog who loves to listen to stories. The child who may find it boring or difficult to read out loud in front of a grown up can read to the dog. This programme is not only for children with reading and learning disabilities, but also for children who lack interest in reading activities, or find it difficult to read out loud in front of a group.
“We managed to secure some phones through kind donors. The clients have reported feeling more anxious, isolated and irritable. The online sessions do help but nothing can replace having a dog in the room, who you can cuddle and play with,” says Radhika.
In 2019, AAF held sessions for over 70 clients with 14 canine therapists on roll. At present, only five clients a week have virtual sessions with Rumi, Akiraa and Austin and therapy dog Oliver is used once in a while for student workshops.
“You have to be open- minded and flexible to try new things. I never thought animal-assisted therapy would be possible over video calls! It’s definitely not as effective, but it’s not impossible. We have had to adapt to a new way of life and maybe figure what else we can offer our clients,” summarises Radhika.
For information on virtual sessions: write to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit @animalangelsfoundationindia on Instagram