Causes

Man's best friend brings cheer to children and the elderly

Volunteer Christopher Kok, 43, and his 11-year-old male cocker spaniel, Smoky, interacting with the elderly at Ren Ci Nursing Home on Oct 22. There were about 15 volunteers, two dogs and 20 beneficiaries for the Healing Paws programme at Ren Ci on the day
Volunteer Christopher Kok, 43, and his 11-year-old male cocker spaniel, Smoky, interacting with the elderly at Ren Ci Nursing Home on Oct 22. There were about 15 volunteers, two dogs and 20 beneficiaries for the Healing Paws programme at Ren Ci on the day.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Volunteer Leow Mei Si, 29, and T-Rex interacting with one of the residents at the home. An elderly person playing with five-year-old toy poodle T-Rex. The sessions at Ren Ci in Bukit Batok began over a year ago. Volunteer Christopher Kok, 43, and his
An elderly person playing with five-year-old toy poodle T-Rex. The sessions at Ren Ci in Bukit Batok began over a year ago.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Volunteer Leow Mei Si, 29, and T-Rex interacting with one of the residents at the home.
Volunteer Leow Mei Si, 29, and T-Rex interacting with one of the residents at the home.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Ms Barbara Wright, 44, taking her dog Ace through an obstacle with fellow volunteers Julia, 13, and Susanne Westerbeek, 49.
Ms Barbara Wright, 44, taking her dog Ace through an obstacle with fellow volunteers Julia, 13, and Susanne Westerbeek, 49.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who go out of their way to meet those needs. This is the latest in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times is spotlighting.

It is a day Ren Ci Nursing Home resident Huei Ah Looi looks forward to.

Once a month, the 77-year-old, who used to be a housewife, gets to play with dogs, such as Smoky the cocker spaniel and T-Rex the toy poodle.

These dogs are part of a team of volunteers under a programme known as Healing Paws, by animal welfare charity Save Our Street Dogs, known simply as SOSD.

Healing Paws started in 2014, bringing dogs and their human volunteers to people who need comfort from man's best friend.

Some sessions are conducted over six months, while others are ad hoc visits. In total, Healing Paws has 50 active dog "volunteers" and 117 human volunteers. It has reached out to about 40 organisations and about 800 people.

The sessions at Ren Ci in Bukit Batok, for instance, began over a year ago. They are conducted once a month for a block period of six months, before both parties decide if they want to continue.

Nursing home residents with chronic illnesses can feel isolated, said 25-year-old Stasha Wong, a National University of Singapore undergraduate and coordinator of the Healing Paws programme.

"The dogs bring companionship and warmth to the elderly residents. The residents can also work their motor skills by grooming the dogs or playing 'fetch' with them."

In fact, Ren Ci's programme executive Ding Xin Yi noticed that the nursing home residents were more alert and cheerful during and after the sessions.

A resident who is usually reticent even began speaking up.

"The dogs act as companions to help in recovery and improve medical conditions such as depression, anxiety. They also help in lowering blood pressure. It aids healing and relaxation," she observed.

In fact, it is not just the elderly that benefit, but volunteers too.

Mr Christopher Kok, 43, who works in sales, said he ended up spending festivals such as Christmas and Mid-Autumn Festival with the elderly residents. He has been volunteering since early last year with his 11-year-old dog Smoky.

"I got to know the residents and make friends with them. They got familiar and comfortable with me, such that they even opened up and shared the stories of their old days. I didn't expect such return," he said.

Before becoming a volunteer, Smoky had to pass two tests - a medical examination and a temperament test.

These tests assess a dog's suitability for volunteering and include seeing if the dog is sociable.

"Unfamiliar environments, with loud noises and sudden movements, can be stressful for dogs, so we have to test their stress tolerance. We also need to see that the handler has their dog under control," explained Miss Wong.

Only about 30 per cent of the canines pass the temperament test each time. Healing Paws holds four recruitment drives a year.

Smoky passed the test because it is neither too aggressive nor overactive, said Mr Kok. "Some dogs are too happy or active and the old folks can't handle them."

He added that some of the elderly were afraid at first, but it was rewarding to watch them overcome their fears and realise that dogs are friendly.

"It is a huge achievement," he said. "Smoky is an easy-going dog and he means so much to me. I want to share this joy with others."

Besides Ren Ci, Healing Paws also takes about five dogs to Boys' Town in Upper Bukit Timah Road, where they partner seven boys aged 11 to 13 in monthly agility sessions.

The boys act as "handlers" who guide the dogs through an obstacle course of hoops, tunnels and horizontal bars.

"This teaches the boys patience through training the dogs and it also builds their self-confidence," said Ms Celynn Chang, senior counsellor at Boys' Town.

"These boys live in our shelter and most have a background of trauma, so this helps in growing their self-esteem."

Unlike the smaller dogs involved in the Ren Ci visits, the furry "volunteers" at Boys' Town are larger breeds, such as border collies and labradoodles, a mix between a labrador and a poodle.

The sessions, like the ones at Ren Ci, are held once a month for a period of six months. They help both the boys and the dogs to burn off their excess energy and build rapport with each other.

Said volunteer June Ho, a 40-year-old lawyer and owner of Meatball, a labrador: "Words can't express how happy I am to see Meatball running with the kids. They ask if I will be there again next month, and it is so moving.

"If we can make a difference in one boy's life, we would totally do our best for it."

Meatball also tried out some elderly home sessions, but "didn't really like just sitting there with old folks combing his hair", Ms Ho added with a laugh.

One of the boys, 11-year-old Harry (not his real name), said he used to be afraid of dogs.

"Now, I like them so much," he enthused. "Training dogs makes me happy and I like to know I can do it."

His friend, 12-year-old Ronald (not his real name), added: "It makes me proud when the dogs do what I say."

Over at Ren Ci, Madam Huei is decades older than Harry and Ronald, but her response to the dogs is the same.

"I enjoyed myself very much. I definitely want them to come again. And perhaps bring more dogs," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline 'Man's best friend brings cheer to children and the elderly'. Print Edition | Subscribe