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Taking a close look at the agenda, you will surely notice that the second part of the show and sport season is rather busy !

Over the next three to four months, not less than 4 major FCI Championships will take place:

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Yves De Clercq
FCI Executive Director
Former stray dogs help kids with special needs in Romania

When stories appear in the media about stray (street dogs) they are generally about mass extermination campaigns launched by the local authorities to reduce the stray dog population. Often the dogs are portrayed in a negative way in terms of human and animal conflict, despite the fact that many stray dogs are in fact abandoned pets or the descendants of abandoned pet dogs and therefore domesticated and still in need of human interaction and care.

© Four Paws/Vier Pfoten

In an attempt to change the misconception of stray dogs, international animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS came up with an idea that at the time was considered absurd by many – to train former stray dogs as pet therapy dogs for children with different disabilities and thus help not only people, but also strays by changing public attitude. The location of the new endeavour Bucharest, Romania, was even a bigger challenge. Animal assisted therapy was practically non-existent in Romania at the time and its introduction was met with skepticism. In addition, stray dogs are viewed negatively by many people in Romania, due to how they are portrayed in the media and there was concern that they would not be suitable for pet therapy work.

Bucharest, the capital of former communist country was teeming with stray dogs – a heritage from the time of Ceaușescu, when the regime started to demolish whole neighborhoods of houses to clear space for the big palace of the leader. The inhabitants were forcefully relocated to apartment blocks in the outskirts of the city, where there was no space for their pets, so many were simply left to roam the streets and reproduce freely. Decades later, many local authorities not willingly to invest in sustainable and humane solutions such as capture neuter and release to manage the stray dog population continue their mass killing of the dogs, often portraying stray dogs negatively in the media to help justify their actions.

© Four Paws/Vier Pfoten

Despite the challenging circumstances, FOUR PAWS did not give up and just several months later under the direction of Anca Tomescu, Head of Stray Animal Care, the charity had in place a team of trained handlers led by a psychotherapist, as well as several certified therapy dogs, who started working with children in state and private institutions in Bucharest. Today, almost 12 years after the launch of the Dogs for People project, more than 150 children have benefited from the efforts of the FOUR PAWS team and thanks to their amazing results animal assisted therapy is gaining momentum in Romania and other Eastern European countries.

Psychotherapist Victor Chitic has been working with the FOUR PAWS team in Romania since the very start of the Dogs for People project. Victor selects the children to be included in the programme and coordinates the animal assisted therapy sessions. “Animal Assisted Therapy is a form of complementary therapy which means that it enhances a conventional therapeutic process that the child is engaged in,” says Victor who goes on to explain more about the benefits of working with therapy dogs. “Dogs offer unconditional acceptance, they don’t see a disability and therefore don’t judge. Dogs offer sensory stimulation, help develop relationship skills, activate certain behaviours and, most importantly, the dog can become a “special friend” for the child.”

© Four Paws/Vier Pfoten

The FOUR PAWS team in Bucharest works with two main categories of children - those with developmental needs (genetic, like Down syndrome, perinatal syndromes, and those with special needs acquired later in life, like cerebrovascular accidents) and children with autism spectrum disorders. The objectives of the therapy sessions are different for each child and are set by their current psychologist, with whom Victor and his FOUR PAWS colleagues work in close collaboration. The animal assisted therapy Dogs for People project helps to facilitate progress in different areas of a child’s behaviour – physical, mental, educational and motivational. With the help of the former stray dogs, children improve their motor skills or the ability to use a wheel-chair, enhance verbal communication, attention span and self-esteem, reduce anxiety levels, expand their vocabulary, as well as short-term memory and understand basic concepts like numbers, size, shape and colour through the different exercises they participate in with the dogs. Their desire to interact with other children or grown-ups is also increased, while their planning and organisational skills are additional enhanced. All these results are achievable in much shorter time than if only conventional psychotherapy is applied, and sometimes are not possible at all without the facilitation that therapy dogs provide.

© Four Paws/Vier Pfoten

The dog trainers are closely involved in the selection of the therapy dogs for the project – a process that is of crucial importance for the success of the whole project. Each dog has to go through a strict selection and training process before applying for certification as a therapy dog. There is the initial selection of strays from shelters, in which the reaction of the dog to various stimuli is tested. Those who pass the test undergo secondary selection, which involves observing the dog’s behaviour in many different situations. The FOUR PAWS team on site has already acquired a lot of experience and knows whether or not a dog could work with children after spending several days with the animal, but nevertheless it takes a minimum of 6 months to complete this testing phase. Those dogs which pass all the stringent tests, can be safely introduced into the therapy process and assigned to a handler. The training of both the dog and the handler is ongoing and the team is continually improving its standards of practice. Currently the Dogs for People project have two dog-handler pairs – Tuca with her handler Mihaela Rafailescu and Mulan with Ema Rafailescu. All therapy dogs live with their handlers and are adopted by them. Sadly, in the beginning of the year the team lost 12-year-old Tibi – the first therapy dog of FOUR PAWS in Romania, who died of a fast-growing tumour in the hands of her handler George Nedelcu. Tibi was an incredible ambassador for FOUR PAWS animal assisted therapy work and is sadly missed.

© Four Paws/Vier Pfoten

“We are very fortunate to have a great team that has been with us since the beginning of the project,” says Victor. “The emotional cost of their work is very high. Every child that comes into therapy is a personal case, a personal relationship. Every dog which is part of the team receives extra care and is treated as a member of our FOUR PAWS family.”

Until the end of 2015 the Dogs for People team conducted the therapy sessions at the premises of various institutions for children with special needs, where they would be given a room to work in by the local health authority. This was a challenge, as the assigned rooms were often too small and seldom had any equipment to perform and monitor the animal assisted therapy sessions.

© Four Paws/Vier Pfoten

November 3rd 2015 marked an important milestone in the development not only of Dogs for People project, but also of Animal Assisted Therapy – in Romania as well as in Europe. On that day FOUR PAWS officially opened “Dogs for People” Animal Assisted Therapy and Human-Animal Interaction Research Center in Bucharest – fully financed by the animal welfare charity and offering free-of-charge treatment for children with special needs. For the team this facility is a dream come true, after so many years they now have a place of their own and, in addition to the animal assisted, can also do research in the field of human-animal interaction and organise education seminars.

The research part is supported by a state-of-the art behavioural observation laboratory (the most advanced in Romania, as well as probably in the whole of Eastern Europe), which includes a video surveillance system powered by 3 HD ceiling mounted cameras that record every therapy session from 3 different angles and a powerful sequential analysis software that codes and records certain behaviours. The software has an embedded statistical package that is used to generate quantitative statistical data about the interaction with animals to help in our learning of animal assisted therapy and continuous improvement in our techniques. Just a few weeks after the facility was opened, it started collaborating with two of the most prestigious universities in Romania: Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca and The University of Bucharest. One of the first internationally acknowledged experts in AAT to visit the Dogs for People therapy centre was Dr Philip Tedeschi, Executive Director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, who took part in a workshop organised by FOUR PAWS.

© Four Paws/Vier Pfoten

The new centre means that FOUR PAWS will be able to help even more children in need not only by providing direct help on the spot, but also by educating and conducting research. Currently the team of Dogs for People works with 32 children and the plans are to expand this to 50 children by the end of 2016.

Anca Tomescu, Head of Stray Animal Care explains that “being able to help children and at the same time changing people’s perceptions about stray dogs is incredible. The most rewarding moments for us are when we see significant improvement in the children through the interaction with former stray dogs and the difference the dogs make to the children’s lives.”

FOUR PAWS are planning to expand their Animal Assisted Therapy work with stray dogs to other countries where they operate in the future.

Julie Sanders
‎International Director of Companion Animals, FOUR PAWS