Pepe, Goldie and Sunshine – next time you are taking a flight from Mumbai airport’s iconic terminal T2, don’t forget to cuddle these furry Golden Retrievers; your faithful friends who will be there to help you out in your time of need. This is how!
A few days ago, a German tourist was travelling back to her country after visiting India. She reached Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s terminal T2, only to find that she had missed her flight and would have to wait for almost 15 hours to catch the next one. She was travelling alone and the airport seemed to be the best place to wait. But the entire ordeal took a toll on her – she was exhausted, stressed, worried, and frustrated after some time.
Fortunately, her anguish wasn’t meant to last long. Just when she counted that there were nine more hours left before her flight took off, something unique happened – a meeting of a lifetime that helped her get rid of her mental and physical fatigue in an instant – a meeting with an adorable Golden Retriever she found roaming around the airport. A comforting hug and a long heart-to-heart conversation later, the tourist found herself in tears. Her hands kept combing the dog’s hair – she said she couldn’t describe the feeling of finding a charming friend amidst the endless chaos. “Truly an angel,” she said, looking at the dog. After spending an hour with it, she was all set to wait and board her flight – happy and stress free.
After all, who wants the final memory of any tour to be that of a gloomy airport and missed flight!
All this happened thanks to the latest initiative by the airport authorities in Mumbai, who have employed three trained therapy dogs to spend time at the airport and soothe, comfort and de-stress passengers waiting at the departure terminal.
“When preparing for their flights, many people have travel anxiety or stress. Not everyone travels for a holiday. Some people are going to study, some have family issues, etc. And everyone has to go through long waiting hours and procedures. The airport authorities sensed this tension and wanted to do something to comfort the passengers. They contacted us because we have been in the field of animal assisted therapy for the last 13 years,” says Aakash Lonkar, one of the directors of Animal Angels Foundation, an NGO working in the field of human-animal interaction.
Aakash’s sister, Minal Kavishwar, started the NGO in 2003. An MA in Clinical Psychology, Minal wanted to do something that would bring together her two greatest loves – animals and the welfare of children with special needs.
“It started when a school principal in Thane wanted to get a dog trained to work with children with special needs. That was the first documented research in the field of animal assisted therapy in India. The dog showed unconditional love towards the children, who became more tolerant and developed increased attention spans,” says Aakash.
On meeting success, the team at Animal Angels started training more therapy dogs and working in special schools, hospitals for cancer patients, psychiatric clinics, trauma relief programs, and more.
The NGO works with families who volunteer their pets for the program, where they are trained to become therapy dogs.
“The dogs stay with the families. When training them to become therapy dogs, we first start with basic obedience and commands. We train the family as well on how to raise a therapy dog. Additionally, the training includes socialising and desensitising the dogs because they have to maintain composure not only in the home setting but also when they are travelling to places like schools, hospitals, etc. They are bought up to have positive personalities and be outgoing,” says Aakash.
The Animal Angels Therapy centres are located in Pune and Mumbai. These are the for-profit wings of the NGO – places where the dogs are trained.
The team also provides consultancies to different private companies that want to set up such therapy centres in their organizations.
This latest program by Animal Angels, in collaboration with Mumbai airport, is called ‘Comforting Angels.’
Three dogs trained by the Pune-based Animal Angels Therapy centre have been employed and they are sent out to roam around the airport on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 7:00 pm to 1:00 am. The pilot program started five months ago and is currently continuing. Each dog is accompanied by a handler who is also trained in counselling fellow humans.
According to Aakash, the impact has been very positive. People look forward to meeting Pepe, Goldie and Sunshine.
“The most common thing we notice at airports is that most passengers don’t smile at all. But whenever they see a dog, a natural smile comes on their faces – they keep their bags aside and pet the dogs. The entire mood at the airport changes,” he says, adding that some journeys are especially traumatic for people who travel to attend the funeral rituals of someone in their families. “Many people come and actually cry in front of the dogs because their stress is immediately released.”
Animal Angels Foundation is basically a team of pets, pet owners, volunteers, and mental health professionals, providing therapy through trained therapy dogs.
They are currently working in 5 cities with over 50 dogs. Animal assisted therapy has applications in counselling sessions and hospitals, and for children with autism, developmental disabilities, ADHD, learning disabilities, etc.
According to their website, “the presence of an animal helps theses children in improving attention, concentration and helps in channelizing their energy. The touch of the animals is comforting and helps them to calm down and relax.”
“The main thing motivating us to move forward in this field is the immensely amazing human-animal bond. We learn a lot from animals about how they give to the society without asking for anything in return. It is unconditional love and it is making people around the world very happy. That is enough to keep us going ahead,” concludes Aakash.