I recently dropped my mom off at the airport and told her to give me a call when she would be boarding her flight. She, unexpectedly, called me a short while later. She excitedly asked me to guess what she was doing at the airport right then. “Stopping by duty-free for some tequila?” I ventured. “No! I’m actually playing with dogs. I’ve been with them for the last 10 minutes.”

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a form of therapy that incorporates animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds, into the treatment plan. The animals are used as a catalyst to complement and enhance the methods used during traditional therapy. While therapists are great by themselves, using animals during a therapy session can help provide major breakthroughs in a session. A traumatised child can see an animal as his/her friend, and an adult could see them as a solid support system. The animals used in these therapy sessions create a strong bond with the child or adult that can help them with their recovery process by giving them a sense of calmness, safety and comfort. AAT is mostly used with children or adults, but especially children, who go through attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD), autism, dementia learning disabilities, depression and anxiety.

In India, the major metropolitan cities have at least one centre practising AAT. Fur-Ball Story in Delhi as well as Mumbai, Wag-Ville in Bengaluru and Animal Angels in Mumbai are the three most popular centres all over India. Animal Angels was the first AAT-oriented organisation in the country. It was founded by clinical psychologists Rohini Fernandes and Radhika Nair in 2005 with a sole Labrador dog named Angel, who was the inspiration behind the organisation’s name. The responsibilities of therapy dogs go far beyond just fetching a ball. Animal Angels worked with Apne Aap Women’s Collective, a day-care centre and night shelter for children of sex workers in Kamathipura. They helped a few 4 to 6-year-old children who were showing particularly aggressive and sexually driven behaviours because they were exposed to what their mothers were doing. In this situation, their dogs worked on different facets of the children’s personality and helped them deal with a range of emotions they went through that made them behave in that manner.

Arun Roy (name changed), switched to AAT after two years of traditional therapy to treat his depression. “I don’t want to say that it didn’t work, but the therapy sessions weren’t helping me as much as I thought they would and I started looking for alternatives. I did some research and decided to try AAT. Having the dog present there helped me motivate myself to come to the session. I felt extremely comfortable to talk about myself to my therapist with him near me.” Natasha Varghese, a veterinary student, also shared her experience with AAT. “I used to suffer from major social anxiety. My cousin suggested I go for AAT instead of traditional therapy after she read about its benefits in a newspaper article. I contacted the organisation and signed myself up for a session. I am still in the initial stages of my therapy, but the Shih Tzu that I do my sessions with has helped me reduce my social anxiety considerably.”

Interestingly, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) launched a free service which involved AAT. CSIA became the first airport in the world to have therapy dogs inside its terminal to help passengers deal with the stress, pressure and mental exhaustion. Animesh Katiyar, Co-founder of Fur Ball Story, the organisation who lend the dogs to the airport spoke about their partnership and how their dogs help travellers. “The CSIA approached us and asked if we’d be interested to do it. We got on board and started sending three dogs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to the airport. We understood that only 30 to 40 per cent of travellers are heading on vacation. A majority of passengers travel due to work or maybe visiting a sick family member. These travellers are highly prone to anxiety or panic attacks that can sometimes happen during the flight. The dogs give these passengers an opportunity to calm themselves down by interacting with them.”

The AAT animals are trained to be calm and are put through various situations as part of their training to become certified ‘therapets’. The certified therapy dogs at Fur Ball Story were selected when they were puppies, depending on their nature and temperament. “We start by giving the puppy simple hand commands. When they’re four and a half months old, we start the training which is segregated in four stages — obedience, advanced obedience, socialization and desensitization.” The crucial therapy training happens in the last two stages. Socialization deals with training the dog to not be attached to just one person and be open to everyone equally. Desensitization involves desensitizing a dog to different kinds of stimulus that they might come across during their job. For example, the airport therapy dogs are trained to be desensitized to distinct sounds like loud announcements, planes taking off and such.

While dogs are the primary animals used, AAT can also be conducted with other animals like cats, birds, pigs, and horses. Horse Therapy or Equine Therapy is also a great way to deal with mental issues. Similar to dogs, horses make great AAT companions for the kind of bond they can create with human beings. Equine Therapy involves activities such as grooming, feeding and riding horses which helps the person to work on their physical, mental or cognitive concerns. Fazlani Natures Nest in Vadgaon, Maharashtra is a wellness resort and spa that conducts Equine Therapy workshops. They hold 2 to 4-day workshops which is conducted in groups of at least 10 participants. You can also take part in wellness activities including yoga and meditation.

Even though the stigma revolving around mental health and therapy has reduced tremendously in India, people might still not be comfortable putting themselves in a traditional therapy setup. Animal-Assisted Therapy could be a more relaxing form of therapy where they can be more comfortable to share their thoughts and emotions due to the friendly and calming presence of the animal in the room.