Man’s best friend is adding a new trick to its repertoire and it’s happening here in Singapore.
From providing cuddles, comfort and unconditional love, to providing support to those with physical disabilities, dogs are already doing so much.
And in recent decades, they have made the leap into helping people with emotional and mental health issues as well.
In Singapore, it’s a growing trend to employ these good-natured animals to bring love, warmth and comfort to those in need of some tender loving care.
Through organisations such as Healing Paws, a subsidiary of Save our Street Dogs (SOSD) Singapore, pet owners are able to sign their pets up for animal-assisted activity sessions. They visit a myriad of beneficiaries – from the sickly, to children, students and seniors.
These animal-assisted activities come in the form of casual human-animal interaction, such as dogs visiting the elderly at a nursing home.
Touching hearts through healing paws
Angelyn Ang, a long-time volunteer with Healing Paws, has watched relationships with beneficiaries and animal-assisted activity dogs blossom.
“Most of our beneficiaries love dogs,” Angelyn says. “They are so happy to see our dogs. Many times, before a session starts, they will ask if a particular dog is here today.
“As the sessions progress, I can see that the beneficiaries are more cheerful, and they interact with the dogs more.”
And the breed, size or age of the dog doesn’t matter. The only qualifying factor is their character, or temperament.
“They must be calm and friendly towards humans,” says Angelyn. “Before they can join our session, they need to go through a character assessment.”
During the assessment, potential animal-assisted activity dogs will be approached by multiple humans, be placed in a noisy environment, and go through a health screening. Only if they stay calm throughout the assessment, can they can join Healing Paws’ sessions.
Additionally, many of the dogs in Healing Paws’ roster are rescue dogs, and partaking in animal-assisted activities is a small way for the rescued dogs to say thank you, and give back to the society which has given them a second chance in life.
Joanna Yao, a senior clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, which has held animal-assisted activities for its long-stay patients since 2006, told The Straits Times that as animals do not hold preconceived notions of people and accept them wholly for who they are, their patients can engage wholeheartedly and interact with them without fear of being evaluated or judged negatively.
She adds that pet-assisted activities encourage patients to have conversations with others, such as the dog handlers or their fellow patients, and this promotes social interaction and improves social skills.
Furthermore, by directing one’s attention towards another living thing, a patient’s focus is drawn away from his own difficulties for a while, she said.
Studies have found that dogs can lower the level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. It triggers the release of endorphins, a feel-good neurotransmitter which gives a calming effect and boosts the level of serotonin, a chemical linked with happiness and well-being.
This is one of the reasons dogs are a popular choice for emotional support companions. That, and their overwhelming sense of loyalty and unconditional love, of course.