Happy hounds help in therapy

Muddy Paws dog trainer and dog psychologist Andrea Mento, left, introduces Axyl, a 10-week-old bullmastiff pup, into a physical therapy session at the Canaan Care Centre in Stirling, East London. Occupational therapist, Leslie Labuschagne, right, helps three-year-old Yolani Tyalana pet the puppy. The centre has introduced therapy dogs to their children in an effort to encourage social interaction as well as offering emotional support.
Muddy Paws dog trainer and dog psychologist Andrea Mento, left, introduces Axyl, a 10-week-old bullmastiff pup, into a physical therapy session at the Canaan Care Centre in Stirling, East London. Occupational therapist, Leslie Labuschagne, right, helps three-year-old Yolani Tyalana pet the puppy. The centre has introduced therapy dogs to their children in an effort to encourage social interaction as well as offering emotional support.
Image: MADELEINE CHAPUT

The Canaan Care Centre in Stirling has been introducing furry four-legged friends to their 35 children over the last month.

Working with Muddy Paws dog trainer and dog psychologist, Andrea Mento, a series of therapy dogs – mostly bullmastiffs – have visited the centre, bringing lots of love, slobbery kisses and wagging tails.

The centre has enjoyed welcoming Mento and her happy hounds into their playrooms and therapy sessions.

Centre manager Ellie Saayman said most of the children in their care suffered from cerebral palsy, making it difficult for them to communicate.

Introducing therapy dogs to the centre was their way of encouraging social interaction and allowing the children to have more fulfilling and happy lives.

“Many of our children are essentially trapped in their bodies. They often have learning disabilities and have a very difficult time communicating with others,” said Saayman.

“Some have more ability than others, but ultimately they lead very insular lives and have trouble connecting and expressing complicated human emotions.”

Saayman said that the dogs were being introduced slowly, with two to three visits a week in an effort to gauge whether they were doing the right thing.

“Therapy dogs are quite common in similar centres overseas, but it is an expensive endeavour and we weren’t sure it would work. It’s been very gratifying to see how excited they get when they see one of the dogs. Some children who were completely non-responsive have started giving us smiles for the first time. A dog just lifts the mood, and I know now that what we’ve done is best for our kids,” said Saayman, who has worked at the centre since 2006, and became the manager in 2011.

Mento said bullmastiffs were a calm and instinctual breed.

“They are often confused for their cousins, boerbulls, who can be more aggressive natured but bullmastiffs are extremely docile dogs and with the right training they know exactly when to walk away, when they are needed and how to remain calm in public and in instances where there are loud noises.

“They are also extremely patient dogs and in a setting like this, where many of the children don’t have much control over their movements, a trained bullmastiff will accept a child grabbing onto their ear, or just walk away if they are uncomfortable, without snapping or becoming aggressive,” Mento explained.

She said that the dogs went through a canine good citizen training programme.

It was much easier to train emotional support dogs or therapy dogs than guide or service dogs.

“Dogs offer unconditional love and therapy dogs are an amazing way to stimulate children with learning or physical disabilities,” said Mento.

After extensive training with Mento, through its puppy phase, a therapy dog will become the centre’s newest permanent “staff member” and live on the property.

Saayman said: “The therapy dog programme is full steam ahead and our pup will be born any day now so we’re very excited.

“Most of what we do here is based around treatment and therapy, but we don’t want this to feel like a sterile hospital.

“We want it to be a home, a happy and supportive place for the kids,” said Saayman.

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