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Lack of funding means final curtain for `Doctor Dog'

2010/09/22 16:58:30

Running after a flying tennis ball in the open yard of a nursinghome in Taipei County's Linkou Township, Baboo, a happily pantingblack labrador, is not merely enjoying a game of fetch with anelderly patient, but in fact working -- performing his job as atherapy dog.

As one of 113 certified therapy dogs in Taiwan, Baboo isconsidered an indispensable part of medical treatment for manypeople.

In the past decade, Baboo and his counterparts at Taiwan Dr. Doghave served more than 150,000 people, ranging from stroke victims,elderly people suffering from dementia and children with delayeddevelopment to people with a dog phobia.

But Baboo and his group of painstakingly trained canine friendswill be soon relieved of their duties because the program thatemploys them is closing down at the end of December due to a lack offunding, said Shirley Chen, the founder and the brainchild behind theprogram.

Chen said that when she initiated the program in 1999, Taiwan didnot have a strong animal welfare awareness, let alone the experienceof using animals as therapy aids. Many dogs, she noted, werediscarded on the streets like waste, while those rounded up and takento pounds were generally kept in inhumane conditions and would sufferterribly before being unceremoniously killed.

As part of the dog lover's efforts to address the plight ofanimals in Taiwan, Chen developed the idea of starting anorganization aimed at fostering healthy social bonding between humansand animals and also at reducing animal abandonment by letting peopleknow that even stray dogs, when properly trained, can become assetsrather than liabilities.

To reach her goals, Chen brought together a group of certifiedspecialists and volunteers who began to offer behavior classes fordogs and their owners, as well as therapy dog training courses.

"Looking back over the last 10 years, I am extremely proud of ourachievements because we have reached our goals. These dogs have doneamazing work and have touched the hearts of many," she said.

Wang Lan, a former staff member with a degree in animal assistedtherapy (ATT) from the United States, said working with the dogs hasbeen extremely rewarding because "the progress made by the patientsis visible," even though slow at times.

Wang recalled one case in which a severely autistic boy went fromrefusing to utter a single word to being able to give commands to theanimal, a process that took approximately six months, she said.

"The child would not look anyone in the eyes and blocked out allsocial contact, but when he saw the dog fetching a ball, he lit upand began to pay attention to another living being for the first timein his life," Wang said.

One desperate mother sought the help of Taiwan Dr. Dog becauseher son was so terrified of dogs that he once jumped off a movingscooter because he saw a dog across the street.

Wang said the specialists started the therapy by presenting himwith small dogs such as chihuahuas before working him up to biggeranimals.

Some of the dogs are trained as walking companions forsemi-ambulatory patients in nursing homes and hospices, while thereare also patients who receive sensory stimulation by gently rubbing adog with their feet.

These accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. Taiwan Dr. Dog hasbeen awarded a "Hero for Today" award by Readers Digest, and one ofthe dogs, Jojo, was named a "regional ambassador" by the AnimalPlanet Channel in 2002.

However, other than the sparse funds generated from tuition forthe behavior training classes, Taiwan Dr. Dog literally has norevenue because all the services provided at medical institutions andschools are free.

"We used to rely on two corporate sponsors but they bothdiscontinued their funding due to the recession, " Chen said, addingthat the program needs at least NT$4 million (US$126,382) in order tostay afloat.

Chen said that while she still hopes to receive enough supportfrom the public to sustain the program, the harsh reality in themeantime is that it might be the end of the line for Dr. Dog inTaiwan.

"It will be heartbreaking to shut down the program but I feel Ihave the social obligation to start informing everyone about ourfinal farewell," she said.

More information about the work of these gentle dogs and the joyand hope they bring to so many can be found at the organization'swebsite, Jenny W. Hsu, CNA staff reporter