SHANGHAI — Dozens of dogs were on their best behavior Sunday afternoon as they lined up before a judge to find out if they would qualify for the designation of “therapy dog,” a relatively new concept in China.
Most of the gaggle of onlookers were pet parents who had enrolled their fur babies in a rigorous training class in hopes that the animals would be approved to visit children with autism, people at nursing homes, or anyone else who might be in need of emotional support.
First, the judge lets each dog sniff her. Then she checks their teeth, gives their fur a tug, and prods sensitive body parts — including tails, bellies, and legs — to observe their reactions. The dogs must also respond well to strange or sudden noises, as well as wheelchairs and other animals. The goal is for the animals to be calm in any environment and friendly with people of all ages.
Children play with dogs during an animal-assisted therapy event at the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center
After several elimination rounds, only a small number of dogs have qualified for the final stage of training. According to Wu Qi, the founder of Paw for Heal, one of China’s only animal-assisted therapy (AAT) programs, the program’s overall pass rate is just 20%.
“AAT dogs must be stable, easygoing, and friendly with humans,” Wu told Sixth Tone. “They should be receptive to training and must not attack people even if they’re treated improperly.”
Wu, who is sometimes described as China’s “dog whisperer,” said it usually takes six to 10 months before a dog can become a qualified AAT animal, at an average cost of nearly 100,000 yuan ($14,000) per animal. Wu takes care of the training, while the clients provide the animals: Then at the end of the course, the owners volunteer at elder care homes, centers for people with mental challenges, and other places where their newly trained dogs can be sources of comfort to others.
Wu Qi (front), the founder of Paw for Heal, poses for a group photo at the end of an animal-assisted therapy event at the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center
Therapy dogs are widely used in many countries with established training, evaluation, and certification systems. With Chinese organizations like Wu’s only tapping into this market in the last decade, however, domestic demand far outpaces supply. There are currently more than 10 million people with autism in China, while over 9 million people in the country are affected by Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.
To reach the level of therapy dog training internationally, Wu said China needs to create a more friendly environment for the animals. He’s also doing what he can to help bridge the gap, collaborating with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to introduce scientific research on AAT to his program in China.
“Through learning from the European team, China may shorten the time to catch up with Western countries in this field by several decades,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, Wu and five dog owners walked their animals through the shopping mall at the Bund Finance Center, a commercial complex where pet-friendly events are regularly held, with permission from management. “That was a sensational moment for us because dogs aren’t (typically) allowed in the mall,” he said. “But therapy dogs need training in such places to improve their social engagement.”
Participants in an animal-assisted therapy event escort their dogs through the shopping mall of the Bund Finance Center in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center
Since its launch in 2012, Paw for Heal has certified around 80 therapy dogs volunteering at some 30 nursing homes and autism organizations nationwide. Founded in the eastern city of Nanjing, the program has now expanded to around 10 cities across the country.
Wu announced Sunday that his program is aiming to train over 100 therapy dogs this year in Shanghai alone. While this seems a lofty goal given past performance, there’s a reason he’s so confident. Earlier this year, Li Jiaqi — arguably China’s most famous commercial livestreamer — sent his own dogs to Wu’s training center in Shanghai, and broadcast parts of the training on microblogging platform Weibo beginning in April. In the weeks since, over 1,000 dog owners have signed up for Paw for Heal — more animals than the organization normally receives in a year, according to Wu.
Wang Rui brought her dog to Sunday’s mall event after watching Li’s livestream. “I didn’t know there was such thing as therapy dogs,” Wang told Sixth Tone. “She (my dog) makes me happy every day, and I think she can bring happiness to other people in need as well.”
Another pet owner, Bian Yunyun, told Sixth Tone she decided to participate in Paw for Heal because her 5-year-old mutt Zara has always been so tender, loving, and patient with her young son, as well as the family’s more active Labrador. Zara started the course last fall and is currently an “intern.” After completing another two training sessions, she will officially be a therapy dog.
Bian recounted how, during a recent visit to a high-end elder care home in Shanghai, one of the residents in a wheelchair hit it off particularly well with Zara.
“I spoke to her and learned that she has a dog, too, though she wasn’t able to bring him with her to the nursing home,” Bian said. As the woman “walked” Zara up and down the hallways, Bian remembers the big smile that lit up her face.
In the last episode of Li’s therapy dog-themed online series, broadcast Sunday evening, one of the flamboyant host’s pets graduated and became a full-fledged therapy dog. “Thanks to Li’s influence, the number of therapy dogs in China could skyrocket to 1,000, even 100,000,” Wu said.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Participants in the Paw for Heal program handle dogs during an animal-assisted therapy event in Shanghai, May 17, 2020. Courtesy of the Bund Finance Center)