Minal Lonkar-Kavishwar, an energetic and creative psychologist, is introducing animal-assisted therapy in India to increase emotional and mental health. She is unlocking latent capacities for communication and empathy by combining the qualities of a therapist and trained animal, during interaction with clients.
Trained in clinical psychology at India’s premier institutions, Minal is adapting the internationally-recognized professional discipline of animal assisted therapy for use in India. She introduces the therapy as a supplementary treatment tool in specialized settings, such as schools for children with learning and behavioral problems. She is developing a clientele among people for whom the ideas of psychotherapy and dogs as companions are generally alien or even stigmatized. Her implementation strategies are not typical—in which institutions come to the specialist to design a program. Adaptation for India requires Minal to design legal norms for initiating “therapy dogs” into therapeutic settings and to address skepticism of the unfamiliar therapy. She scrupulously documents the processes she designs for professional audiences whose validation is necessary to reach her goals. To establish professional credibility, Minal is measuring the effectiveness of her work with animal therapy in detail and her data and analysis are gaining ground among her peers. Minal aims for acceptance of animal assisted therapy into the professional repertoire—but also beyond it. Her insight is that this therapy is a tool to build empathy and communication—necessary skills for citizens to care for themselves and their communities. Minal’s growing numbers of colleagues are creating new roles and interactions that contribute to mental health and general well-being for people across India. Minal believes that anyone who learns how to treat an animal well can do the same with people. She believes the process of integrating the animal-human bond opens new channels of communication—even during reading sessions with regular children—and across the spectrum of people with whom she works. Minal maintains that the happiness, joy, and instinctive understanding present in animal therapy are the greatest contributors to learning, healing, and change. Minal is exploring the possibilities of engaging with a range of citizen, professional, and municipal institutions, to integrate aspects of animal assisted therapy into their programs. She has successfully implemented this therapy for mentally challenged children, autistic children, hyperactive children, physically disabled people, children with hearing and speech impairment, children with developmental disability, cancer patients, AIDS orphans, children with learning disabilities, and people with post-traumatic stress disorder. As her work gains credence in the psychology academy, she will increase training, so that high quality animal assisted therapy may become widely available.
The stress-filled urban lifestyle of today, often dictated by never-ending material pursuits and goals, has taken a qualitative toll on the mental and emotional health of society. The repercussive effect of frenetically paced lives is that hundreds of millions of people worldwide are affected by mental, behavioural, neurological, and substance use disorders. A 2002 WHO report revealed that 154 million people globally suffer from depression while about 877,000 people commit suicide every year. In India, seventy-three people of every 1,000 are diagnosed with some form of mental illness; making mental health an alarming health issue. The health infrastructure depends heavily on conventional allopathic drugs for most mental illnesses (as well as physical); such treatment relates closely to modern research into biochemical causes of the illness. However, even with managed care and cost reduction, drug treatment incurs escalating expense, risk of side-effects, and targets symptoms that may recur. Society will use the tools it knows, and within the medical establishment, drugs are the known remedy. The past few decades have witnessed a lean towards more holistic strategies that employ alternative or complementary therapies to counter excessive medicating, invasive medical procedures, and institutionalizing mentally ill patients. However, conventional practices are backed by data and verifiable parameters of success and failure; which may stymie innovation while it protects the patient.For many people with compromised mental and emotional health, the medical toolkit is not available. Since most people experience depression in relationships, particularly the family, the neighborhood, the school, the hospital, the workplace; the relational aspect for improvement requires communication about needs that may be expressed in behaviors that are difficult to understand or tolerate. The resulting gap is reinforced by ignorance, socially conservative attitudes, and an ethic of endurance—trying to get by, rather than seek professional help.
To bridge this gap, Minal is bringing animal assisted therapy to the mainstream. In many countries, animal-assisted therapy is non-threatening and already known to be effective with autism, depression, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It is, by nature, disarming for patients and therapists alike, as they begin their explorations to focus on the dog and what they observe about it. Minal’s strategies to introduce animal assisted therapy in India make it accessible to a wide range of people: Her clients already interact with the institutions that provide the therapy for theirs or their children’s needs. During four years of voluntary practice in this new field, Minal painstakingly adapted foreign guidelines to meet the needs of the Indian health sector and bring its work to par with the international norms. Minal has had to address how dogs in institutional settings can be allowed in India’s health care legal framework. She follows the guidelines the Delta Society prescribes for using animal assisted therapy in hospitals and institutions. As Minal works with governments and institutions to draft a code for India, the code will be based on Delta rules and regulations. (The Delta Society is a leading international resource in the field of human-animal bond theory and application. They established guidelines for animal-assisted programs and are the leading international credentialing program in the field—Minal is credentialed by Delta.)Begun in 2003, Minal’s organization, Animal Angels, designed and conducted the first documented research on animal assisted therapy in India, in association with the Thane Municipal Corporation’s Jidda school for mentally challenged children. The success of this project laid the cornerstone for Minal to found Animal Angels Foundation as a CO in 2006. It is India's first and only organization that imparts intensive training to volunteers and professional therapists (both humans and animals) as part of her core vision and outreach program. After Minal began her work, students of psychology who wished to learn more about the therapy were referred to her by professors from Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University (SNDT), where she did her Master’s in Clinical Psychology. The organization incorporates volunteers who are not therapists but are trained by Minal to handle therapy animals in the therapy setting; many are the owners of the dogs. They pay membership fees to become trained volunteers and maintain an active relationship with the work of the Foundation. Most volunteers trained by Minal continue to do this work. Some younger volunteers now work full-time with the Foundation, and some, who had never engaged with issues around mental and emotional health, are taking courses and spreading awareness. The Foundation has about twenty volunteers in Mumbai, ten in Pune and about four psychology students in training. Apart from this Minal continues to conduct short courses for students in the form of orientations to the subject and the practice. Of her current projects, one’s budget is Rs.1.2 lakhs per year and another Rs.80,000. Apart from individual project finances, Foundation expenses are sustained by donations and memberships. All therapy animals are carefully selected based on their temperament and personality. They are trained per international standard norms and are registered as therapy animals under the Delta Society. In training people who can further train other volunteers and therapy animals, Minal focuses on training practicing professionals, such as physiotherapists, psychologists, audio and speech therapists, doctors, and paediatricians. These volunteers are taught to understand the diverse aspects of various disabilities for all age groups. As a result, over the last two years, many practicing professionals have approached Minal to be able to initiate this therapy in their centers and clinics. Minal has also begun certificate courses for mental health professionals and students of psychology. The course’s objective is to equip them to learn the therapy and implement it in different areas of mental and physical health. One psychology student Minal trained wants to work on the Isle of Man and intends to return to India to continue work there as well. Minal has one therapy center in Thane (Mumbai) which is in a growth phase; another in Pune in July, and a third in Mumbai, in September. This is in line with her plan to create multiple therapy centres in India. Plans are underway to go to Bangalore, Delhi, and Nasik. Minal’s programs are efficient on many levels: While they provide training venues for new practitioners, they also supply crucial professional data to build the discipline in which they are training, and make the therapy accessible to the public by implementing it within their institutions.In a series of school settings, Minal has brought the values of emotional health and sensitivity into classes with the help of therapy dogs. For example, working with a speech therapist, Minal found that a child who was non-responsive and non-communicative began to express himself in therapy sessions with a dog named Sophie. He learned to ask for the ball, call Sophie, choose colors for the ball, etc. In another classroom, an autistic child, aggressive with other children, struck the dog. The therapist explained that he couldn’t play with the dog because it hurt the dog. He came to understand and express how he thought the dog felt and then made the critical leap to apply that insight to the other kids, and not hit them. All programs run by Minal are meticulously and exhaustively documented, forming an unprecedented empirical body of substantive research material for the Indian audience. Apart from her work with individual cases of children with developmental disabilities, Minal has works with about twelve developmental centres on projects with special children, children with disabilities and children in vulnerable life circumstances, four hospital and clinical centres, and over ten educational centres ranging from activities for primary levels through teachers training workshops and orientation programs for postgraduate psychology students. She also presents papers based on her work and studies at conferences and seminars and conducts talks and workshops at mental health organisations; orienting medical and mental health professionals to her work. As a result, people are receptive to her ideas and willing to give the projects both time and space, despite the unfamiliarity of her approach. Some of her students (one in the U.K.) have established practices in India and abroad.Minal’s documented therapy projects show that animal assisted therapy when used with other therapies provides faster results, better motivation and patient participation in the treatment process, and induces a positive state of well-being in the patient. The documented benefits and successes of these programs have demonstrated wide applicability in multiple spheres of health intervention such as psychological distress, trauma, loss or bereavement, and even disaster relief work. The therapy is so elastic in nature that it has the potential to reach all age groups and settings; children as well as seniors, people suffering from mental or physical illness to those suffering from daily stress.Until now, Minal’s toughest job has been convincing hospital authorities to conduct her programs in their hospitals. Their typical mindset does not welcome an animal in the hospital. While introducing animal assisted therapy in hospitals, Minal adheres to the correct techniques and the prescribed infection control guidelines. She has coordinated with the National Institute of Health in the U.S. and the Roswell Cancer Center in New York, to help guide her in redrafting and modifying international guidelines to become relevant in an Indian context. She introduced the therapy at Cipla Cancer Center and Ruby Hall Cancer Center in collaboration with the National Institute of Health, who had been conducting such programs in hospitals for the preceding ten years. Minal has worked with the Bombay Psychiatric Society and King Edward Memorial Hospital Mumbai to introduce animal assisted therapy as a medium of therapy for post-traumatic/post disaster stress. For example, Animals Angels Foundation used therapy dogs to help people who had lost their loved ones in the July 11, Mumbai train blast. Minal has dedicated herself to increasing awareness and training across fields and locations. She offers professional training courses, educational programs, and workshops for medical students—in addition to parents and caregivers of client groups.She makes continuous and sustained efforts through papers and presentations to the medical community and professional bodies. This prestigious list includes the Institute of Psychological Health, Bombay Psychiatric Society, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Indian Council of Mental Health, Bombay Psychological Association, Bapu Trust Center for advocacy in mental health, and Bridging Over Learning Differences—a project of the Morris Trust for children with learning disabilities. At several of the professional conferences she has presented papers, Minal was among the few asked to present orally—even more of an honor than being invited to submit a written paper—an indication of how seriously her professional peers are listening.The Animal Angels Foundation attracts media and has been extensively covered. As a result, there is an increasing awareness and visibility of animal assisted therapy as an excellent alternative worldwide, especially in India. Minal has spent considerable energy and time in spearheading her media campaign through newspapers and magazines, TV shows and interviews, and through the interactive digital domain. Minal’s articles on the therapy are posted on international websites like Animal Net, Delta Society, Disability India, Pet Thought, and Healing Threshold, among others. One of her stories on the therapy dogs, Kutty and Goldie, was selected to be published in the forthcoming book in the series—Angel Dogs with a Mission: Divine Messengers in Service to All Life. The United Nations tapped the impact of ‘Animals as Therapists’ for their awareness campaign for the Millennium Development Goals. India’s first therapy dog Kutty and Minal were also invited as special guests on the show Mission Ustaad. Minal continues to devote herself to conducting lectures and workshops for communities like the Rotary Club and Parent Association of Children with Disabilities.
Growing up, Minal experienced first hand the limiting effects of poorly understood conventional therapies through her relationship with her autistic cousin. In spite of repeated therapies—based on misperceptions of what he needed—he made little progress. The experts couldn’t communicate with him. Minal watched him and his family suffer.During childhood, Minal continual witnessed the incredibly healing quality of animals, especially dogs. She spent hours with them, observing, understanding, and learning how to accept and love unconditionally. Much later, the therapeutic benefits of animal assisted therapy prompted her to open doors in a new way in the continually evolving field of mental health care. It was a natural choice for her to do a Master’s in Clinical Psychology, as her interest in the psyche, whether human or animal, had been an enduring passion. During her graduate training, a chance meeting with Dr. Kshitija Koppal, from whom she learned dog training and canine behavior, brought the discovery of the discipline of animal assisted therapy—unknown in India and utterly new to her. She instantly recognized it as a blend of her skills. The only training for the discipline was in the U.S. and Europe. She couldn’t afford to travel, but she persisted to pursue studying by correspondence. She became the first person in India to take the certification course by correspondence.It was after she was approached by TMC’s Jidda Special School to train a dog that she realized a dog in a school for special children could definitely do something more. Back then, the concept of a therapy dog was unknown, let alone popular. With her innate knowledge of animal behaviour, Minal instinctively realised that children with intellectual impairment would benefit greatly from the unconditional love, acceptance, and companionship of an animal. Minal took up the project to train a dog for the emotional wellbeing of the mentally challenged children in that school. When she saw Kutty, her first trained therapy dog, bring a smile to the face of a child who could not speak, she knew she would do this work for the rest of her life. Over the years, Minal’s passion has expanded her vision to include making India’s practice in animal assisted therapy a globally recognised and appreciated mainstream therapy practice.