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It is a Saturday morning and a group of about 30 children are at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park for Animal Assisted Interactions SG’s (AAISG) Doggie Detectives programme.

The children sit comfortably on the floor in small groups, each with a furry friend and its handler. They interact with the dogs, scribble on workbooks and enthusiastically raise their hands to answer questions.

The aim of the programme is for children to foster respect, kindness and a sense of responsibility towards animals and the people around them as they learn how individual dogs — like humans — have different likes and dislikes.

Doggie Detectives is just one of AAISG’s programmes. When it first started In February, AAISG ran Vaccination Compawnions at Nee Soon East CC where canine teams helped to comfort children who were anxious about getting their Covid-19 vaccination.

The social enterprise designs and implements canine-assisted programmes for the elderly, youth-at-risk and children, including those with special needs.

However, AAISG founder Adele Lau, 31, says that they don’t call their dogs therapy dogs as this places unfair expectations on what the dog can and should do.

Adele, who is a lawyer by training, has been working on animal welfare policies in the past few years. She says that there is an increasing demand for animal assisted interactions, or AAI for short,  but a lack of education and training of such programmes in Singapore.

“This meant that the safety and wellbeing of the animals were put at risk… It also does more harm than good if canine teams do visits (to nursing homes) only once or twice as it might emphasise the seniors’ fear of abandonment,” Adele tells The Pride.

Worse if training is inadequate or canine teams are not adequately prepared for such events.

“Dogs that don’t enjoy these activities can end up biting the kids or seniors,” she warns.

As an owner of four dogs — all of which  are involved in AAISG’s programmes — Adele had first sourced for a breeder in Australia as she wanted a dog suitable for AAI. The breeder identified Rapha, who as a puppy demonstrated affiliated behaviour towards humans.

So Adele got him, and Elsie after that. She also adopted two more dogs, Skai and Koji, in the last two years, who were given up by owners who bought them on impulse during the pandemic.

AAISG’s goal is to foster meaningful, mutually-beneficial interactions between people and animals and grow communities together, Adele says.

To do this, it is building a holistic ecosystem by conducting research in AAI and providing education and training for dog handlers.

The team of three full-time staff members screen, educate and train owners and their dogs through an accreditation process. Each owner and their dog will become a Caring Canine Team . There are currently 10 teams in training.

Teaching empathy to children

Teaching empathy to children
Ninja. Image source: Serene Leong

One Caring Canine Team is social worker Ho Lap Kuan, 34, and her 3-year-old poodle Ninja, who was born blind in the right eye.

Lap Kuan tells The Pride: “We joined AAISG because Ninja is very sociable and enjoys meeting new people. He loves kids and is drawn to them!”

“We can also teach them about how despite his eye, he has adapted and is doing many things that other dogs do. Like dogs, humans can also look different. When the kids learn about his eye and ask ‘What happened? Is he still in pain?’, they are showing kindness, wanting to find out whether he is okay.”

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The accreditation process involves going through an initial interview, an introductory course, a full-day preparatory course, a 10-hour mentorship programme and an optional 6-month diploma that includes 10 AAISG sessions. Lap Kuan and Ninja have just finished their second session.

Lap Kuan says: “I definitely learnt more about my dog through the process. I like to think it’s an ongoing journey. What’s important is to spend time with your dog and know your dog well. For example, how do you know when your dog is stressed? How do you tell people when they are doing something that your dog might not like?”

That said, Lap Kuan said that handlers often need to multitask as it can get chaotic running activities with children. Sometimes, she laughs, the dog can get distracted, especially if there is a bag of treats nearby!

Bringing joy to the elderly

Bringing joy to the elderly
Rapha walking alongside a senior during a visit to Lee Ah Moi nursing home. Image source: AAISG

AAISG regularly runs activities with seniors in nursing homes to bring joy and provide motivation to seniors during their physical activities. It also enhances the wellbeing of the seniors and helps them not feel so isolated.

“When they see the dogs, (you can see) their eyes light up and they get very excited to take the dogs for a walk. They experience the same nursing home in a different way because the dog is present,” AAISG director Stasha Wong explains.

The canine teams also facilitate group bonding and social interaction among the seniors through creative activities like Doggie Bingo where the dogs pick treats off numbered plates.

Another Caring Canine team who enjoys interacting with seniors is Tham Ru Ting, 32, and her 4-year-old Singapore Special Mika, who only has three legs. She was rescued from Pulau Ubin and adopted by Ru Ting one year ago.

Ru Ting says: “We really enjoy working with people and seeing the joy Mika brings to others.”

Ru Ting and Mika with a group of children at a Doggie Detectives programme.
Ru Ting and Mika with a group of children at a Doggie Detectives programme. Image source: Serene Leong

Ru Ting shares that in a recent visit to a nursing home, they met an elderly lady who told her that she had intended to skip the session but decided to come to find out why Mika only had three legs.

“It reminded her that strength and resilience comes in many different forms. For Mika, even though she lost her leg at such a young age, she still found joy in the little things,” Ru Ting says.

It’s not a one-way street either. Ru Ting says that the journey helped her feel closer to her dog.

“When Mika is uncertain about something, she will stop and look at me. She slowly built up that form of communication with me and it helped us bond a lot more.”

Making friends and building community

Making friends and building community
A fun session with youths and Koji at Gardens By The Bay. Image source: AAISG

It’s not just young and old that the dogs work with, but youths as well.

Over three Take A Paws sessions , AAISG worked with Fei Yue Community Services to teach youths on topics of control, challenging negative thoughts, reframing stress, handling challenges and recovering from setbacks.

Adele says: “We want to build a community of dog handlers and expand to more youth social service agencies. With the dogs, we can do so much more than just having social workers talk to youths. We curate activities from a therapy aspect and we think of how we can incorporate the dogs.”

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Adele shares that she was very encouraged by some of the youths at Fei Yue who showed up to volunteer at the recent Bishan Park session.

Adele says: “Some of the youths come from difficult circumstances, and some of them barely spoke to us in the first session. For them to come down (that Saturday) and volunteer is very important to me and shows how much our work does that we were able to engage them!”

Volunteers at the Bishan Park Doggie Detectives programme.
Volunteers at the Bishan Park Doggie Detectives programme. Image source: Serene Leong

One thing Adele has learnt through this journey is to be open to new perspectives.

Adele says: “I always had the impression that Singapore Specials are not suitable for AAI. They generally are not because of their (shy) disposition and genetics. They’re fearful of humans. But having met Mika, I saw that it was possible.”

“I also hope that by showing how wonderful our companion animals can be through our work, we can change the way people see animals, that dogs are not ‘just dogs’, and encourage people to be kinder to their pets and other animals around them.”

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