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20 years of Dr Dog

This year at Animals Asia, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of Dr Dog. The programme is still serving the Hong Hong community through our caring doctors with wet noses.

Since the first hesitant steps in August 1991 when original animal-therapy dog, Max, visited the Duchess of Kent Children's Hospital in Pok Fu Lam, "Dr Dog" hasn't looked back. Today, we celebrate over 500 canine consultants who have since passed the grade; offering their unconditional healing to the lucky recipients in 10 cities throughout Asia, including Hong Kong and three major cities in mainland China.

Throughout this time, the positive changes in attitude towards companion animals is encouraging to say the least. The disbelief from hospital staff in those early days when faced with the completely new concept of animal therapy could not have been more profound. Today, hospitals, orphanages, disabled centres and homes for the elderly, and visually or hearing impaired, are often queuing in a waiting list for visits by animals that have truly earned the title of man's best friend. 

Most patients may not realise, or even care, that the consequences of hugging their canine visitors sees their blood pressure and cholesterol levels reduce, the fact is that welcoming companion animals into our lives sees a positive effect on our physical and psychological health. A recent study of animal-assisted therapy in Hong Kong using our Dr Dogs has shown that therapy dogs are effective in facilitating the social behaviour of autistic children, cultivating a positive play environment and providing the children with tactile stimulation — showing that they are a more positive influence than toys.

Dr Fiona Woodhouse, Deputy Director (Welfare) at Hong Kong’s SPCA also believes that people's awareness of welfare issues in Hong Kong has dramatically improved. Cat and dog owners think more carefully about how they keep and feed their companion animals, acknowledging that they are sentient beings and no longer a fad or fashion item, to be thrown away on a whim. More people are choosing careers in animal-related fields, with students now interested in animal behaviour and in studying veterinary science oversees. As Dr Woodhouse notes, obviously a commercial element still exists, but connecting with dogs and cats sees an empathetic attitude towards animals in general, and may be a springboard in terms of critical thinking of broader issues such as vivisection, vegetarianism and the exploitation of animals in entertainment.

This Saturday, as we celebrate the achievements of dogs in Hong Kong, we pay tribute to the heroes who help the community — often risking and losing their lives to help ours. Outstanding service dogs from Hong Kong government departments such as the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), Correctional Services, Fire Services, Food and Health and Police. Together with our own Dr Dogs and Professor Paws, all crossing cultural and social divides, and giving the Hong Kong public the comfort of knowing that they are indeed in safe paws.

With a loving look back at the dog who started it all 20 years ago in Hong Kong — the then-ridiculous idea of dogs visiting patients in hospitals, and one of the last pictures of my beloved Max wading in the sea, before finally bidding farewell.

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