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Operation Santa Claus

Therapy dogs bring love and joy to Hong Kong children with mental disabilities

Animals Asia Foundation’s Dr Dogs scheme sends canines into schools to help students learn how to socialise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 4:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 8:01pm

Eleven-year-old Tsui Hiu-fung gently pats the head of Oscar, a golden retriever, and reminds him to listen to the storyteller.

“Here is where the story gets better. So pay attention,” he tells Oscar. While Tsui himself fidgets a lot, he is teaching Oscar to be respectful when someone is telling a story.

For more than four years, Oscar has been visiting Tsui and his classmates at the Hong Chi Winifred Mary Cheung Morninghope School, which is an institution in Kwai Chung for children with intellectual disabilities. The canine acts as a therapy dog.

Operation Santa Claus connecting the Hong Kong community with a good cause

Since 1991, the Animals Asia Foundation has been sending therapy dogs to the disabled and the elderly in the city through its Dr Dog programme.

Watch: Dr Dog interview

As the animal-assisted therapy programme enters its 25th year, it has received a donation of HK$180,000 from Operation Santa Claus, the annual charity campaign jointly organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK.

According to the foundation, there are currently more than 250 therapy dogs in the city, including 10 animals which regularly visit the school in Kwai Chung.

Esther Chan Choi-wan, a social worker at the school, says therapy dogs are tremendously beneficial for children with intellectual disabilities because they make children feel loved.

“The presence of dogs is very calming. Children feel the affection of the dogs even though no words are uttered,” she says. “Unlike people, the love that pets offer can feel very unconditional.”

Chan says children at the school love Dr Dogs so much that they use the once-a-week meeting with the therapy dogs to encourage students to behave well in class.

“If they behave well in class throughout the week, they get to spend one-on-one time with Dr Dogs in addition to the usual group visit,” she says.

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Pinky Fok Yan-yin, who owns Oscar as well as another therapy dog called Donna, says it is extremely rewarding to see how her canines have changed the lives of children with intellectual disabilities.

“Oscar has been coming for four years and Donna nine. They have watched how [these children] grew up over the years,” she says.

Fok says she has seen children like Tsui becoming more adept over the years at taking the initiative to interact with others. She says through animal-assisted therapy, children have developed a sense of responsibility and learned to respect dog owners.

“They have now learned to actively ask for things,” she says. “For example, they will now ask me first before they feed the dogs or brush their fur.”

Marnie Yau, the manager of the Dr Dog programme, says participating dogs are screened strictly and trained to make sure they are suited to therapy. She says only 30 per cent of dogs actually qualify to join the Dr Dog programme.

“The qualified dogs must be more than two years old and be neutered,” she says, “They have to pass a test on their temperament [during which] we simulate how children approach dogs. For example, children tend to pull their tails and harass them in various ways.”