John-John was has the body of a 16-year old and the mind of a five-year old. He rushes up to us and shows delight at seeing  our furry companions who have been here once before.

He shouts, “Doctor Dog! Doctor Dog!” as if he was the official welcoming party for the therapy animals that we have brought for the day’s session on May 15, 2012.

John-John is among  the better functioning boys at Cottolengo Filipino in Rodriguez, Rizal.  The other boys remain bed or wheelchair-bound,  their bodies slightly twisted and they are unable to verbalize how they feel or what they want. The caregivers know their moods and needs only by their familiar grunts and the slight changes in facial expressions.

But even the Dr Dog parents and PAWS volunteers sense that there is a positive change in the  boys’ moods when  the dogs enter the room.  Initially, some of the boys  show surprise or even fear  at seeing the four-legged ‘doctors’ and the caregivers help us assure them that the animals are “mabait” (good-tempered) and will not bite.

Many of the patients eventually reach out to touch the dog and the corners of their mouths shift a little to betray a small smile. For those who are unable to change their facial expression because of their condition, the unmistakable light in their eyes show the volunteers and Cottolengo staff members that the ‘therapy’ is working.

PAWS is the official Philippine coordinator of Animals Asia Foundation’s Dr Dog Program which started in Hongkong in 1991. Nita Lichauco, PAWS President, took up the challenge of introducing the program in the Philippines in 1997.  

“The idea of showing how dogs help humans and make them ambassadors for the animal welfare movement was just so fantastic that I said “yes” right away, “Lichauco reminisces. She had no inkling though that it was going to be so difficult to get into the hospitals who were very strict about allowing animals in the rooms.  

This was why the Philippines’ first Dr. Dog, a German Shepherd named “Pakko”, started to do the visits at institutions like Tahanang Walang Hagdan (House Without Stairs – a home and school for specially-abled individuals in wheelchairs) and HOPE (a school for autistic children) before he and his pioneer group of canine ‘medical practitioners’ were allowed to eventually enter a hospital.

To date, a number of hospitals have already opened their doors to Dr Dogs – among them, the AFP Medical Center, National Children’s Hospital, Philippine General Hospital, East Avenue Medical Center, Baguio Medical Center and the  Philippine Children’s Medical Center or PCMC – where the group conducted its latest visit on June 21, 2012.

Dr Julius Lecciones, Medical Director of PCMC, had this to say about the furry doctors when they first came to visit the hospital five years ago, “ The kids are happier when the dogs come to visit. We know that having a positive attitude during their treatment is also crucial to their getting well and that’s what the dogs do to the kids,” he said.

Carla Abellana, actress, commercial model and one of PAWS’ celebrity spokespersons, accompanied the Dr Dog volunteers to PCMC as part of her birthday celebration this year. “It was an amazing experience and it certainly made my birthday more special. Animals have so much joy to give to people and you can tell that the kids really connected with the  Dr. Dogs right away.”

Dog ‘doctors’  present at the said PCMC visit were Poypoy (aspin), Bonita (Chihuahua), Kohler (schnauzer), Adonis (shihtzu), Eddie (labrador) and Ginger (pomeranian). Television crews from GMA 7 and TV5 were there to cover the event.

Dr Poypoy, one of the three aspins (Asong Pinoy or native dog) in the Dr Dog roster, also provides entertainment as he can jump through hoops, shoot mini-basketballs and catch frisbees. 

“Although technically, therapy animals are not required to know any tricks,” says Anna Cabrera, PAWS’ Executive Director, who coordinates the visits of the Dr. Dogs.  

“Only that they are neutered,  healthy, extremely well-behaved and well-socialized, can sit still to allow themselves to be petted, can tolerate a bit of ‘rowdy’ behavior and some unexpected rough handling from some special-needs children.”

Cabrera explains that the dogs go through a temperament test to determine if they are suited to be therapy animals.

Currently, PAWS has ten active Dr Dogs and the organization is still on the lookout for more applicants.

“If they think their dogs meet these requirements, we hope more aspin owners will consider applying their friendly, neutered aspins into the program,”   adds Nice Rodriguez, owner of Poypoy and President of the PAWS’ Aspin Club – a club that seeks to uplift the image of native dogs.

An estimated 10,000 children and adult patients in the Philippines have already benefited from the Doctor Dog visits since it was launched in the country in 1997. PAWS uses the dogs not only for therapy but for their humane education visits in schools.

“It changes one’s whole perspective on animals when we see that it’s not always about people helping animals.

“It really is, and pet owners swear by this, about animals helping people,” says Cabrera.

Donations of  toys, books and other items for giveaways at the institutions that the Dr Dogs visit are accepted at the PAWS Animal Rehabilitation Center in Aurora Boulevard, Katipunan Valley, QC during office hours of 10 am to 5pm, Mondays to Saturdays. 

To apply for Dr Dog, send an email to [email protected] To donate cash and support PAWS’ humane education programs, please deposit at any of PAWS’ bank accounts on or through Paypal.  We need your support to keep these programs running!

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