Sublime bonding of beautiful beings

Assistance dog attends to chores of physically challenged
Last Updated 07 March 2019, 10:32 IST

At one moment a teenage girl was enjoying the wild wind playing with her hair, while cruising on Mumbai-Pune Highway with her parents, and the next
moment she opened her eyes in a hospital.

Ten years have passed by and Sanam Kar­u­nakar (nee Rabadi) surviving the accident that claimed her parents and left her wheel-chair bound, nowadays looks up at skies with a beatific smile.

It was not sympathy from people, but an empathy oozing from the soft-brown eyes of a black coated canine called “Magic,” who brought her out of the shadow spaces that traps most physically challenged people and elderly citizens. Magic is an “assistance dog” helping Sanam in her everyday chores, and is now as good as the young woman’s alter ego and a guardian angel; and probably that is why she calls him “Magic’al Angel.”

Magic opens and closes door; pulls her wheel chair; covers her with blanket; retrieve objects and drops articles into waste basket; fetches telephones, puts and removes clothes from washing machine; switches on and off lights; gets items from cupboard, shelves, refrigerator; ferries items from one person to another; alerts her of an intruder; gets help in case of emergencies; and also provides solace when she is down and out feeling lonely.

“It is probably the sensitivity towards people who are thrown into the marginal spaces of society that made me think of training dogs to assist them in their day-to-day chores and infuse into them a “will to live”; dogs have an uncanny knack of absorbing negative emotions and all this is done unconditionally,” says Shirin Merchant, who along with her
husband Junaid founded “Canines Can Care” in 1995-96 to promote a healthy mindset and eradicate prejudices against canines in the country.

Sanam was one of the first physically challenged person to be provided with an assistance dog in India, and for the young girl, Magic brought “the magic of living back into her life.”

In her articles, the articulate girl refuses to stop gushing about her pet, and Shirin says: “Recently, she texted me that there is a stem cell therapy treatment which she intends to take… and asked will you take away Magic if I become fully all right?

“I told her that one of the rules we have is that once a person is clinically declared physically fit then we take back the assistance dog and send him/her to some other needy person. You know what she replied? Oh, then I won’t go for the treatment. I don’t want to lose Magic. This is the kind of beautiful and sublime bonding one develops with one’s pet.”

Though the Canines Can Care was started as a project to dispel misconceptions and explain individuality each canine possess, over the years it has shaped into training and providing assistance dog.

This year, after successfully passing the “KCAI-Kennel Club of England Accreditation Scheme for Dog Trainers and Behaviourists” exam--making her, the first Asian, to clear this exam--Shirin launched the assistance dog programme with her students in cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and Pune.

Talking about her interest in a field , Shirin says: “I have always loved dogs... so I was still toying as to what I should do after graduating in zoology, when one of the world’s top dog-behaviourist--UK-based John Rogerson held a weekend programme. He felt that I had a penchant for canine training and called me to Durham.”

After serving as an associate for four years, Shirin, now a member of “Northern Centre for Animal Behaviour,” and “The Pet Behaviour Institute”, (both in England), came back, launched a magazine and started dog trainers’ course, as well as began holding courses for dog owners on how to gauge various moods of their furry pets.

The turning point came after Kargil Conflict; “In 1999, I had watched a demonstration carried out by Nicola James of UK-based Dog Aid on assistance dog. It fascinated and thrilled me to know that dogs can be trained to help disabled people… not just physically, but also bring depressed people out of melancholic morass.

“Seeing a physically challenged person or an elde­rly citizen struggling with a silent pain flickering in the eyes always left me distressed… and during this period I came across reports of soldiers who lost limbs in battlefield committing suicide leaving
behind children and wives in a state of penury.”

The urge to help these people, regain feelings of self worth, independence and freedom, made her trek to Khadkee near Pune. The proposal was rece­ived with enthusiasm but could not move forward for different reasons.

In 2002, Shirin came across a report on Sanam’s accident and resultant paralysis of lower torso; “I met her and asked whether she would like to be placed with an assistance dog because a family owning five-month old Magic, wanted to give him away. Magic, after being trained for over a year, was sent to Sanam’s house and proved that a dog can do what a lifeless robot no matter how sophisticated can never do: wipe away the tears of loneliness.”

Junaid says: “First comes breed selection. Obviously you cannot have guard dogs for such work…they are aggressive and have a tendency to protect property. It is important to check out the genealogy of the puppy, as a dog prone to particular illness may only become a liability rather than a help.

“Then comes the temperament of the puppy, it is important that the pet has a calm and serene temperament. Of course, some may argue street mongrels have powerful immunity and are extremely intelligent, but then the problem is that they are small in size. After assessing the needs of the person who is to be provided with the pet the training begins… props similar to the person’s house is set up; and during a one-year-long training the puppy is woken up at any hour of the day and night and made to understand the command.”

On the issue of breed, Shirin points out: “...because of Indian climatic conditions I prefer Labrador or Golden Retriever who are also amiable in nature. The total cost ranges between Rs 5 lakh to 10 lakh that includes puppy procurement, putting up props, training and other ancillary costs. That is why we seek help and sponsorship from corporate and other legitimate sources. Some modifications are made in the house for the dog to attend to everyday chores. “The expenditure may sound high... but when I see a dog bringing smile and verve back on these forlorn faces… I know it is worth it… because joyous eyes are the most beautiful thing in the world.”

(Published 19 October 2013, 16:47 IST)

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