In Conversation with Leo Dalal, Parul Dalal and Brinda Thaker

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It is scientifically proven that dogs have a positive impact on humans. Petting a dog can substantially reduce cortisol levels in your blood stream. Apart from teaching us valuable life lessons, they also help alleviate internal and external conditions in unique ways.

Parul Dalal, her furry family member, Leo, a therapy dog and Brinda Thaker, Leo’s trainer and behaviourist got candid with Netra Venkateshwaran from NewsOnPets. The four chatted on important topics like therapy dogs, the reception around animal assistance and mental health.

Parul, Leo’s mother, did her traineeship under the well-known personality, Shirin Merchant. That’s where she met her business partner, Brinda, a pet baker and canine trainer. The three collaborated and ventured into the pet therapy space. They believe that animal assistance in India needs to be promoted. They strongly believe that it’s the one space in India that needs to change and should be implemented across schools and corporates.

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Parul, Leo & Brinda (Photo Courtesy: Netra Venkateshwaran)

Leo Dalal, Parul’s adorable Golden Retriever was a happy entrant in her life. The bond that the two of them have formed over the years is deep and truly beyond measure.

Netra Venkateshwaran: How did Leo come into your life? Talking about the therapy space what institutions and schools have you tied up with? When you say therapy what kind of work does Leo do?

Parul Dalal: Leo was gifted to me by a very dear friend of mine in the year 2014. Ever since it’s been nothing short of lovely. It is safe to say that Leo has been a surprise package. Leo has taught me to appreciate the small joys of life!

Brinda Thaker: When it comes to the therapy space, we have worked with various schools. We also went to an old age home in Khar. Some of the schools that we have visited are Nahar International School in Chandivali, Powai and another school we went to D.Y. Patil International School, in Worli. Parul and Leo have also attended 2-3 kindergarten school classes in Bandra. We have also conducted private workshops.

Netra Venkateshwaran: When I was away for college in the United States, before our exams we used to have a dog therapy session. This took place at the International Student Centre on our campus. Every time I would be sitting in the library all frazzled and studying before exams, that’s when I used to go and chill with the dogs. I could feel that the dogs were calming my nerves. Similarly, what has the reception towards therapy in India been like? Why did you choose this space to tap into the industry?

Brinda Thaker: That’s what I call as instant magic!  You know, it’s not only with children, but even we as adults at either school or office settings are caught us in a space of social stress, pressure, stigma. Sometimes we just need to let go and need to act like children. The dogs bring out the fun side. Why we chose this space? I didn’t even start this because I wanted to promote and raise awareness about this space. In fact, I’m glad I picked this up and today I do want to each and everyone to know that dogs have healing powers. It is so important for everyone to have an idea of what animal-assisted activity is all about, what therapy is all about and how it helps a layman. For example, I don’t think in India there is a situation wherein children are studying for their boards and there is a dog to calm them down. But we do have dogs at the airport to help those with travel anxiety. It makes a world of a difference and helps in confidence-building.

Netra Venkateshwaran: I even read an article and a scientific report recently, wherein I have covered the aspect on how dogs help children with autism. It really helps them develop pro-social behavioural skills. The reasoning behind this is that the dog gives you the unconditional love and don’t judge you for having that disability. Could you please elaborate on this?

Brinda Thaker: This one field needs to be promoted the most in India because it is working wonders with people. You know it doesn’t need to be someone with a disability that needs an animal-assisted therapy or an animal-assisted activity. It can be nothing but to just make somebody’s day better. It could even be taking the dog to a working environment where everything is so stressed and this does co-exist with other mediums of therapy people use, just that it is a new way of being out there, making sure people are happier and a lot more comfortable around pets. Of course having said that, whether someone has a disability or not, a pet is definitely making a difference in someone’s life. Dog therapy does not have to deal with only children with autism or anything, in our everyday lifestyle it helps us in very simple ways. Like with the old age home. We had the best time at the old age home with Leo along. We even got emotional after witnessing the elderly who were so happy because of Leo. They wanted to ask so many questions and wanted to know all and sundry. What he eats, how he is groomed and is given a bath, and much more. Those 2 hours we know that because of Leo we made their two hours and that’s what our goal is from animal-assisted therapy. There are so many individuals who are comfortable with a dog as there is no one to judge them, you can say something in the dog’s ear not talking back to you, they are just listeners.

Parul Dalal: Therapy here in India is now growing. Back in 2014, it did not exist.  Slowly and steadily, Shirin introduced us everything we know about therapy. Not just what Brinda spoke about, but even something like anyone could come in right now in this cafe and give Leo a jadu ki jhappi and, that’s it! He is literally taking in stress from you and giving you unconditional love in return. We are doing the same, giving back the society the love it deserves in our very own ways.

Netra Venkateshwaran: How did you train Leo to be a therapy dog?

Parul Dalal: First thing, Leo’s nature basically is very calm, assertive and there is something about him that is very calming. As a puppy also he would let you tickle him, do masti with him, he was just submissive in a good way. In short, a happy, submissive, calm dog. So from that, Shirin gave her approval to go ahead with the animal assistance courses and assessments. I had asked Shirin during my traineeship whether Leo could be a therapy dog? And she said yes because of his characteristic, temperament, nature all of these are the requirements within a therapy dog.

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Netra Venkateshwaran: What is the process that Leo underwent?

Brinda Thaker: The assessment was done initially right from when he was a puppy. His training began with Parul. When I met Leo first, I met him as someone who could give the approval to be a therapy dog. When a lot of therapy dogs are chosen abroad, they are generally puppies and are also assessed on the characteristics of their parents. So in Leo’s case, his genes were amazing, his temperament was exceptional, and parents had great traits. So Shirin gave a final confirmation to thoroughly assessed  Leo. The dog has been okay with a kid touching the ears, so I did it the first time. He or she has to be calm when the kid unknowingly is brushing him, petting him or even for that matter putting their hand in his mouth. So these are the little assessments we did when he was a puppy. However, there are different stages of life, Leo had to be assessed. This is because the temperament can change at any given time because of the positive or negative trauma the dog has faced growing up. Loud noises, children speaking make a huge difference.

When Parul started training him, we have had Parul’s cousins and their kids come home, 2 or 3 in number. We met some kids outside to assess him. He would go on walks at different environments, be it the beach, the roads at Juhu Tara, or while Ganapati processions were in full swing. It was all a test to see how he would react around various settings. Dogs also hear the noises much louder.

Any professional would tell you that a dog’s training never ends and the same goes with Parul and Leo as well. The bond between the two is what it is. The bond has to be the tightest with his pet parent apart from his trainers or behaviourists. As a pet parent, we are learning even more from the dog.

However, his life as a dog will never stop. There are days where he is allowed to run in the water, do the fun things, “all dog things”. It will never stop just because he has to commit himself to be a therapy dog. There could be days off where there is no training happening and he’s left to do his own thing. It’s also a time where he can spend on himself, rejuvenating, relaxing and recharging.

Parul Dalal: There are days when you need to switch off. You know, where you just let him do what he wants to. Overtraining also can be equally harmful and detrimental for you and your dog. So you just need to create a bond and strike a good balance. Leo senses my pain, discomfort and fatigue, that’s when he immediately comes and sits next to me and comforts me.

Through our conversation with Parul Dalal and Brinda Thaker, we now know so much about Pet Therapy and believe that it certainly heals individuals to become better people.

Team NewsOnPets is all for Parul- Leo Dalal and Brinda Thaker’s Pet Therapy initiative! We urge you to spread awareness and do your bit.


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About the Author: Netra Venkateshwaran

Anchor & Correspondent • A part time journalist but a full time animal lover. Netra is an avid traveler, a caffeine addict and a food enthusiast. She also has a keen interest in fashion and luxury designer wear!

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