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'Professors' bring smiles to quake kids

It was hard not to cry meeting Deng Yu Rui for the first time. His father had died in the earthquake last May, and his mother had tragically lost three of her limbs, but Deng's face beamed as he met his new four-legged best friends.

It seems that little Deng has inherited his bravery from his mother, who now runs a blog helping other earthquake victims heal from their trauma.

His school in Dujianyan was destroyed a year ago on 12 May 2008 and as we walked into the prefabricated buildings that replaced it, I was touched by the welcome we received.

A banner hung proudly in front of the school announcing " Feel the love, pass around the love, hand in hand with Animals Asia's Professor Paws". This, and the visit itself, had been arranged by one of the teachers of the school, Mr Zhang, who has been spreading the word in his school about our bear campaign since 2004.

Rainbow, Suki, Sailing and Cherry had organised the day in remembrance of the earthquake and to make the children feel special during a time when they were bound to be sad. Kind volunteers had brought their dogs - a pug, Professor Xiao Xuan, an Afghan, Professor Da Er, a cross black labrador, Professor Da Hei, and a poodle, Professor Bi Bi - and we were ready to begin the event.

I think about 4 million kids must have bust out of their classrooms when they saw us arrive. Yelling a quick hello in English, they practically mowed me down in their excitement of meeting their professors for the afternoon.

These four fabulous dog ambassadors rose to the occasion with calmness and wagging tails in amongst a sea of youngsters shouting "Wo Ai Go Go" (we love dogs).

A year ago, many of these poor kids would have been grief stricken, after losing parents, family members and friends, but today the dogs were touching their hearts and I felt so proud of how capably they were helping these children to put their sadness behind them.

Suki did a brilliant presentation to about 70 kids and had them shouting back responses about how dogs help so many people in communities throughout China and across the world. Pictures of guide dogs for the blind, and sniffer dogs flashed up on to the screen as the children had to guess exactly how the dogs assisted in their various roles.

At one point a picture showed dogs searching for survivors in the rubble of Sichuan, and the atmosphere became serious for a few seconds with every pair of eyes fixed onto the screen, understanding that lives had been saved because of dogs like these.

The next slide too saw sad faces as Suki showed ex-market dog Eddie, caged and afraid, with more images of dogs caught up in the truly horrible dog and cat food industry.

The kids knew exactly what to say - and were furious with this truly awful treatment of dogs in their country. This was also particularly poignant for Da Hei’s owner, who had rescued his beloved dog from a truck carrying dozens of victims on their way to the live-animal markets of Guangzhou. He couldn’t afford them all, but paid the driver for Da Hei, who was then loaded off the truck before it continued on its way to market.

Then Suki bounced on to the next slides and the children clapped and smiled when they saw Eddie in his new Dr Dog role - kissing children and the elderly in hospitals and homes of Hong Kong.

More slides followed sending lessons on how to treat dogs, and how they treat us if cared for well.

Suki asked the children to think about the reasons why we sometimes shouldn't disturb dogs, and their answers came thick and fast, correctly guessing when eating, sleeping, sad, and leashed - and more besides.

Then she asked how we can make them happy, and again they shouted the responses ranging from walking them, feeding them, always giving water, playing with them, brushing them - and "putting them in a cage when they sleep". Of course Suki was ready with a response for the last statement - and asked them to think if they would be happy "sleeping in a cage for a bed?". The resounding "no" showed they had indeed got the message.

Finally Suki taught the kids how to approach dogs properly - to ask the owners if they could stroke them and to offer the backs of their hands for the dogs to sniff at first.

And finally the moment the kids had all been waiting for - when the dogs were brought into the classroom so that everyone could "practice" the lessons they'd learned. Here's gentle Da Hei, helping a little girl's heart to heal.

They could hardly contain themselves, bursting with excitement, but shyly asking the volunteers for permission to say hello, before stroking the dogs' heads and getting to know their new friends. With previous fears now gone, the kids got down to the serious work of brushing, patting, feeding, and generally exhausting themselves, enjoying this perfect form of animal therapy.

Naturally, all of the kids passed their "test" with flying colours, and earned themselves certificates of graduation before swearing an oath to love and protect dogs - and all animals - for the rest of their lives. They also got to keep the cute plasticine figurines of their professor that they'd so skillfully made.

And those of us looking on with misty eyes were once again so proud that children so badly affected by the tragedy of last May were now swearing their love and devotion to this amazing species - true heroes in the community - who so readily give of their hearts to help ours.

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