From work and transport to recreation and companionship, animals have contributed so much to our lives over the centuries, and indeed since the beginning of mankind. In recent years, new kinds of animal assistance have been explored, and Barcelona is taking an active role in promoting these developments.
Man’s Best Friend
Fifteen years ago, Eva Domenec’s life changed in many ways when her daughter, Monica, was born with a rare genetic disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome—a condition characterised by various physical, mental and behavioural problems, including an urge to eat too much. One of the most unexpected changes came when she noticed how well Monica responded to contact with the family’s pet dogs, who boosted her confidence and helped her to exercise more. “We thought the relationship was so amazing that it could be used to help other people,” explained Domenec, director of the Dog-Assisted Therapy Centre (or Centre de Teràpies Assistides amb Cans—CTAC).
With her daughter’s positive experience fresh in their minds, Domenec, together with Francesc Ristol, CEO of CTAC, started using their dogs in therapy sessions. They worked alongside a range of health experts, including nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and physiotherapists, at the hospital of Sant Joan de Deu to develop the idea further. “Dogs add a new dimension to the patient’s treatment,” said Domenec. “They encourage social activity—it’s magical how it works.”
Monica with the family dog, Kiwi.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a relatively new field that uses animals to improve a patient’s social, emotional or cognitive functioning, and is used to treat many conditions, including autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression and physical disability.
Domenec, who was studying medicine before Monica was born, exudes passion for her work. Today, as well as carrying out dog-assisted therapy, she trains dogs (Golden Labradors and King Charles Spaniels are often the most receptive breeds) and new dog handlers, and has written a book on the subject, Animal Assisted Therapy: Techniques and Exercices for Dog Assisted Interventions (2012). In addition, the CTAC trains and provides home visits to assistance dogs (e.g. hearing and guide dogs), and it runs a year-long Master’s programme accredited by the University of Barcelona.
“Our daughter has given us a lot of things, including love and tears,” said Domenec. “But she has also opened our eyes to animal-assisted therapy, which has helped improve her health dramatically, and given me a new direction in life.”
Dogs are put to work in a totally different way through a unique course at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). The Graduate Diploma in ‘Canine Unit Instruction: Assistance Dogs’ trains students to work with their four-legged friends, not only in the therapeutic field, but also in cutting-edge areas such as search, security and biodetection. The latter refers to dogs sniffing out disease, pests and bacteria (and even bed bugs), thanks to their incredible sense of smell.
Marga Macias Masana, coordinator of the course, has been working with dogs for over 30 years. One of her early commissions was to be in charge of the security dogs at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
The first part of the UAB course involves intensive hands-on learning to become a dog trainer. Then, after a period of general study, students specialise in a chosen area, such as therapy or explosives and security.
Students come from diverse backgrounds (the course counts vets, lawyers and sportsmen among its alumni), but they all share a desire to change lives. Masana’s love of dogs and her enthusiasm for expanding their use into challenging new environments is evident: “The world is changing and it’s important to identify the various environments in which dogs can assist us,” she said.
Dogs are taking on challenging new roles with the International Detector Dogs Team (IDDT).
Plodding along on horseback may seem like a passive activity, but there is actually a lot more to it. The unique rhythm of the horse has been used in recent years to help people with a wide range of conditions, from cerebral palsy and brain damage to Down’s Syndrome and autism. It is believed that horses can also help those with psychological problems, such as addiction and depression.
Physiotherapist Sara Andres works at the Centre d’Equitació Poni Club Catalunya—a beautiful riding school situated in the Collserola Natural Park. Andres is the school’s hippotherapist. Hippotherapy literally means ‘treatment with the help of the horse’, which comes from the Greek word ‘hippo’, meaning horse, and it refers to therapy that utilises equine movement. Although horses have assisted humans in many ways for thousands of years, this specific method began in Germany in the Sixties.
The main idea behind hippotherapy is that, as the horse rocks and sways, the rider works parts of their body they don’t normally use. In turn, their mobility, balance, muscle tone and strength is improved, which directly benefits their quality of life. Whilst learning to ride and having fun are welcome benefits of hippotherapy, its main aim is to make the rider more independent in their daily life.
When used to help mental problems, it is thought that hippotherapy stimulates an area of the brain important for mood control. Andres recalled a couple of success stories, including a 10-year-old girl, who came from a troubled family background and had suffered physical abuse from her father. After her sessions at the riding school, her psychiatrist saw a marked improvement in her state of mind, and shortly after she was taken off antidepressants. Also struggling was a three-year-old boy, who was refusing to talk and used his finger to point when he wanted something. On horseback, he was forbidden to point and had to find another way to communicate. After about three months he started to talk, and went from strength to strength thereafter. “The movement of the horse can help with speech stimulation,” revealed Andres. “Horses can motivate us. They can help us to be more positive.”
Physical and psychological illnesses are treated at Collserola’s Centre d’Equitació Poni Club Catalunya.
Every week, the Poni Club’s riding instructor Dani Sala and his colleagues teach children with special needs how to ride. A unique bond is often formed between the child and the horse, and Sala believes that children often make quicker progress than they would through more conventional therapy methods. “The success, the failures, the frustrations of horse riding—they can teach us all about life and how to deal with it,” Sala affirmed.
The biophilia hypothesis, presented by American biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1984, suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living organisms, which stems from the idea that, for thousands of years, human survival depended on signals from animals to indicate safety or threat. It is thought that if we see animals in a peaceful state, they can trigger feelings of safety, security and wellbeing.
AAT takes advantage of this bond and is gaining popularity as well as acceptance in the medical field. One may question, however, whether it is any more beneficial than traditional therapy methods. “There is evidence supporting AAT’s benefits, but it still needs more research,” admitted Domenec. “Unfortunately, this will take money, and the animal-assisted therapy field is currently quite small.” However, with rising demand and a growing variety of applications, Domenec and other advocates stress that AAT is here to stay.
You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Animals assist us in many ways, but what can we do for them? Meet cat behaviourist Jordi Ferres, also known as the ‘Cat Whisperer’, who has spent the last 12 years helping problematic cats. No two days are ever the same, but correct use of the litter tray is the most common reason for a consultation. Cat fights, shyness and stress from being kept indoors 24/7 also feature high on the list.
Ferres originally worked with big cats in the UK and South Africa, often entering the animals’ enclosures in order to study their body language at close range. He then applied that knowledge to domestic cats back home in Catalunya. He has gone on to solve many cat behavioural problems, and has made frequent media appearances.
A breakthrough can leave owners emotional. “I’ve seen people cry with happiness. Maybe they’ve never been able to stroke their cat and they’ve felt so sad about it, never receiving love,” Ferres said. “Cats are amazing,” he added. “Each cat teaches me something new.”
Cat behaviourist Jordi Ferres.