Frankie, a two-year-old Indie, is a great companion to the 250 elementary school children of the American School of Bombay. He lets the kids pet him when they are feeling sad, sits around them when they are reading in the library and helps them in their speech and language therapy sessions.
School principal Marci Carrel had worked with rescue dogs in the US, and adopted Frankie, born in a horse stable in Mahalakshmi Race Course. She soon realised his potential of working as a therapy dog with children. “Post the Covid-19 lockdown, some kids needed extra emotional support and Frankie could provide them with that,” she says.
She made a winning proposal to her students’ parents and Frankie started going to school. “Having a dog on campus has exceeded our expectations,” says Carrel. “The bond between him and the kids is very powerful. He has helped forge friendships, taught kids to respect each other’s space, and given them lots of love,” she adds. Even the adults have benefitted from his presence in the school.
In turn, the kids and adults have learnt how to behave around Frankie. There is a series of picture books on the much-loved mutt. One is about his life, second talks about how to greet Frankie, and, third is on how to share class space with him.
Dogs are great for kids’ emotional and mental well-being, but it’s also important to teach them how to behave around them, especially if we want to avoid dog attacks on humans.
A duo comprising of dog behaviourist and trainer Aakash Shukla and animal assisted therapist and clinical psychologist Nachiket Deshpande, have conducted workshops on dog behaviour along with pups in tow, for 400 kids and a few adults in the last two years.
In these sessions, the duo talks about how dogs think, how they try to communicate with people without using words, how should one behave around them, especially when they approach the kids and the importance of respecting their space. “After a spurt of reports on dogs attacks on humans, we decided to conduct these workshops to sensitise the kids about canine behaviour, counter misconceptions about dogs and help prevent bite incidents,” adds Shukla.
Seema Mukherjee, principal of Radcliffe School, Thane, invited the duo to hold a workshop for her students last December. “Children are animal lovers, but we adults instill fear in them,” she says. Also a pet parent, she was disturbed seeing how most grown-ups’ first reaction to dogs is to shoo them away. “Unfortunately, we are teaching our kids the same. But I want my students to learn to understand, empathise and live with dogs and all other living beings and be truly inclusive,” she adds.
At the workshop, one of the kids asked if he should be holding a dog’s front two paws and make it stand. “No,” said Shukla. “Dogs are built differently and making them walk like humans can hurt their spine.” Another child asked, why some dogs follow people? “Most likely to play or because they smell food on us,” answered Shukla. The best thing to do is to not establish eye contact, not touch them or run away in panic. “Dogs usually try to grab kids by ankles to calm them, but that doesn’t always go well,” he explains.
The question and answer session is followed by interaction with the dogs, but in a closely monitored and controlled environment. The best part is that most students and even adults go back home with a little less fear and lots of love for animals. A few have also requested the dup to conduct similar workshops in their buildings.
“Even in our school, just by being around Frankie, most kids and adults have overcome their fear of dogs,” says Carrel. And many of them have been able to take more informed decisions about whether to get a pet or not, knowing well how much work it takes to raise a happy, healthy dog.
Vishwajyot High School in Kharghar, too, has a school-dog and promotes inclusive and sensitive living among school children. “Familiarising kids to dogs and teaching them to respect is the best way to avoid any conflict and unwanted incidents,” says Deshpande.
As a pet parent, I agree. Banning certain dog breeds, levying pet tax or stopping people from feeding street dogs is not going to solve anything. But education and awareness certainly will.
When my dog, Khal Dogo, was a puppy, he was heckled by kids in the building. They would call out his name and hide away or make strange, loud noises to get his attention. Thankfully for him, Khal grew up to become an intimidating, large dog, whom kids keep away from. But many other dogs are often blacklisted by societies for getting excited, jumping and running around kids, when they are provoked.
Strangely, people expect the dogs to not react at all, which is impossible. When they do, they are branded aggressive or unfriendly, followed by a slew of inhumane rules including needing to muzzle pets at all times, not letting them use the elevator, etc. My question is, shouldn’t humans, who are supposed to be more intelligent a species, learn to behave around dogs than the other way round?
I am glad that some people are taking steps to give these loving creatures the respect they deserve.
Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, Kathak student, and first-time pet parent