Finding love in furry friends
Human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial relationship, one that positively influences health of both Photograph: (WION)
The idea of coming home to your pet after a long day at work is one that most would agree as a great stress buster. The West has already been successful in coming up with a concept called Pet Therapy that involves animal-assisted activities or animal-assisted therapy for those dealing with stress and other related issues.
Interestingly, the concept is now making its way to a developing country like India where an average middle-class person is constantly juggling between several responsibilities, while making a decent living. Keeping in mind the growing societal pressure on an individual to perform and succeed, a small, yet, bright venture in India called Fur Ball Story is using pet therapy as a model to help people relax, find comfort, recover from serious illnesses and stay happier in general.
They also aim to “help those with any form of disability in coming to terms with life and to provide them unconditional love for motivation. At Fur Ball Story, the aim is to alleviate stress at the very basic level so that it does not reach the chronic stages.”
Start of a Story
It all started when Animesh Katiyar, co-founder Fur Ball Story got two Labrador puppies for recreational purposes. The dogs became an instant hit among his peers and became a source of happiness for first year students who were unable to deal with homesickness, absenteeism, result-related pressure and others.
Animesh then researched about the concept and resolved to start something of his own using this model. The startup got registered in September 2016 with two of Animesh’s friends, Srishti Sharma and Arushi Dixit joining him in this endeavor.
Animesh says, “If the concept could be successful at such a small-scale (in college), it would probably work wonders at a large-scale. That’s how Fur Ball Story began.”
Dishiti Titus, a lawyer who has a dog at home agrees that her pet is her stress buster and mood uplifter. She says, “Sometimes you just need a shoulder to lean on when you're low--no advice, no consoling or sometimes you just need to be alone. Whenever I've been low and I want a break from humans, I go out and sit on the steps of my house. Everytime without fail, I've had muddy paws and a wet nose come inspect. I could scream at my dog and tell her to go away but instead she sits against me and just minds her own business, making sure her presence is felt. My furry friend and her innocent face is a mood lifter. It works every time.”
I could scream at my dog and tell her to go away but instead she sits against me and just minds her own business, making sure her presence is felt
Ashutosh Uttarwar, another pet owner says, “It's hard to point at one specific thing that he (dog) does for me but he's been with us for six years and everytime I'm feeling tense or sad, I simply go and hug him. He helps relieve a lot of negativity. Today I was worried about some decisions I had to make and kept freaking out about how the future will turn out, so I got Pablo (dog) to my bed and lay down with him. Not only did he relieve my stress, but slowly I started to think more clearly and realised I needn't worry and could focus better.”
But to be a pet owner is one thing and call for a pet therapy session quite another. Is India, with its blanket vision of stereotypes and strong cultural opposition to therapy, ready for this ?
Animesh confirms, “Yes, India is conservative when it comes to therapy but there are two reasons why this hasn’t affected our business:
“People hardly understand the scientific relevance attached to pet therapy. To most, it still is just about playing with dogs. Those who find it interesting, give us a call and while they think it’s just some time they are spending with dogs, the therapy does its work and leaves a mark without them knowing. As long as our purpose is served, it hardly matters what stereotypes the client has.
“Also, not a lot of Indians are conservative about therapy anymore.”
Furry Army's Angel at Burger King, CP (WION)
What keeps them going, I ask?
Animesh answers, “The unconditional love of the members of our furry army, and the happy, satisfied faces of our clients. When a parent of an autistic child sees her interacting with our pooches and smiling after a long time, his speechlessness and wet eyes give us all the motivation we require to keep it going, despite the hardships.”
Aanchal Kalra, a photographer by profession narrates how pet therapy changed her life. She was able to survive a troubled phase in her life after she came in contact with therapy dogs. She says, “My dog had passed away and I started remaining sad during most hours of the day. Every other small problem started adding to the agony. It was a really tough time for me. I had gotten that dog (now dead) for myself after suffering from clinical depression for five years. It was difficult to get over that and lead a normal life.
“That's when I went to Pet Fed'16 as a photographer and came across Fur Ball Story's stall. After the event, I called them for a residential session and it became a regular thing. After a few weeks, I had to shift to Mumbai for work and it seriously wouldn't have been as smooth as it was, had there not been the existing support and unconditional love of the furry army.”
Therapy Training for Dogs
How do the dogs get therapy training?
Animesh explains, “The primary requirement of having a therapy dog is, that it must be your pet, it must be your full-time partner in crime. So yes, these dogs are our pets. They live with the founders of the company. We address these dogs as furry army, individually known as Angel (Gold retriever), Muffin (Labrador) and Cocoa (Shih-tzu).
“Therapy training is very different from other kinds of training being provided to dogs such as sniffing or protection. In this, the dog is taught two main things: focus and interaction. The dog is trained with a handler, and for that dog, the handler has to become nothing less than a godly figure. And all this is done with the help of treats. We use salami in training our dogs. It’s call positive enforcement training or reward-based training.
“Therapy training is taught by taking the dogs in public places and teaching him to ignore everyone but their handler. The dog will follow and notice only the handler and when the handler commands the dog to interact with people, the dog does so by sitting next to them so that people pet him.
“For a therapy training, the chemistry between the dog and the handler has to be top notch. Therapy dogs are not allowed to bite, bark or lunge as it may scare or worsen the condition of the people, specifically patients such as autistic or other mentally or physically challenged people. (We prefer the term differently abled). Our training is given by Mr. Varun Anand, who is one of the very few people who is internationally certified to train and certify therapy dogs.”
Cuddling a pet releases the ‘cuddle chemical’ oxytocin in both human and pet. This chemical has a calming and soothing effect in both, leading to development of a bond between the two--almost as intense as that between two humans.
Several researches indicate that being in proximity with an animal reduces stress substantially and makes one feel lighter.
Millinjyot, a clinical psychologist trained in veterinary medicine says, “Studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people's level of the ‘hormone oxytocin’. Cuddling a pet releases the ‘cuddle chemical’ oxytocin in both human and pet. This chemical has a calming and soothing effect in both, leading to development of a bond between the two--almost as intense as that between two humans.”
Animesh confirms that it’s true for his furry friends too, that there has been a considerable change in the nature and mood of his dogs. He says, “Our dogs are most happy when they have people around, because that’s the way they’re trained, so being in sessions is the best time for them.”
Studies have continued in this field since a long time. Dr. Aubrey H. Fine, a clinical psychologist and author of several books on human-animal bond can be cited in his books: “Use of pets in medical settings actually dates back more than 150 years. One could even look at Florence Nightingale (Founder of modern nursing) recognising that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill.”
“The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that positively influences the health and well-being of both”, he adds in his books.
But this exercise must be exhausting for the pets, I ask Animesh?
Animesh ensures, “We make sure that the dogs are taken care of even during the sessions--they are given breaks and personal time to relax or sleep. On regulars days, they chill at the house with a family member, or are taken to parks for recreation and exercise. Pre-and post session they’re back in the house doing their own thing.”
The Furry Army at Nagarro's Gurgaon office in a pet therapy session (WION)
Has there been any limitation for a startup like Fur Ball Story while including animals in therapy?
“With regard to hospitals, people raise concerns of hygiene but our dogs are fully vaccinated and are given utmost care when it comes to maintaining cleanliness-- as we know our clientele. Another challenge, is to tackle people who might not be receptive to dogs and will object to their presence in the building.
“When it comes to bringing the pets to a residence, the only issue is that some people call us in the afternoon and want the session to happen outside in open. We can’t do that due to weather issues, obviously. For a therapy session to happen, we always need ample space and an air conditioned environment.”
Adopt Pets and Say No to Animal Abuse
With Fur Ball Story, Animesh and his co-founders are trying to build a culture of “encourage adoption, increase productivity and decrease animal abuse”.
With an established premise of pet therapy and its benefits to both animals and humans, Fur Ball Story wants to break barriers of just adopting purebred breeds. They want to encourage adoption of indie dogs and discourage abandonment of a furry family member once he or she is old or sick. The startup aims to involve more number of people who can benefit from pet therapy and also increase sensitivity towards animals--lowering rates of animal abuse.
Animesh says, “Upon spending time with a therapy dog, people tend to undergo certain hormonal changes in the body due to which stress reduces, people start feeling happier and thus they end up giving their 100 per cent in whatever work they indulge in. While providing corporate sessions, we advise clients to opt for 3-months long collaboration wherein regular sessions are provided to the employees. This inculcates a feeling of belongingness in employee and he feels like coming to office for something other than money. Such positive changes improve the productivity of the person.”
I got angry at first but when those little balls of fur approached me with loving eyes and licked me and wagged their tails, I felt something different
A therapy-seeker, Pankaj Gulati is a banker who admits being short-tempered throughout his life. He says, “My anger has affected my health at certain times. One day, my son just randomly called Fur Ball Story home with their dogs. I got angry at first but when those little balls of fur approached me with loving eyes and licked me and wagged their tails, I felt something different. It's hard to explain that feeling--initially I did not support it at all, just kept sitting in a corner but till when can you ignore those eyes. The dogs when they came home, they changed the entire atmosphere. After two to three sessions with those cute dogs, I ended up asking my son to adopt one for our own. My family now believes that playing with the dogs has calmed me down. All I know is that I feel happy around them.”
Apart from improving productivity and reducing stress with pet therapy, Fur Ball Story also touches upon an important factor of animal sensitivity. In the wake of several incidents where youngsters all around the country have been seen abusing animals, particularly dogs, it is an important step.
Animesh says, “We are attempting to spread animal sensitivity in India with the help of our sessions. Wherever we go for therapy, apart from telling them the benefits of a therapy dog, we also help them understand how to interact with stray dogs and indies in the neighborhood. We educate kids about the fact that the Indian dogs are not harmful, it’s all about how our approach is towards them is, and we make them learn the right approach so that violence against these animals can be reduced.”
An organisation like Fur Ball Story in India is one-of-a-kind. The startup is planning on expanding to cities Mumbai and Bangalore, and are also working on coming up with India’s first therapy and recreational centre using animal-assisted therapy. Animesh adds, “Once we are settled with pet therapy, we might start a range of organic dog food and other healthcare products.”