Any child who has ever had a pet can testify to the benefits of caring for something, the comfort, joy and unconditional love that being with an animal brings.
But it's not all fun and games, animals can also help teach responsibility. There's the caring for and feeding, ensuring they have fresh water, the walking, grooming and cleaning (depending on the animal in question of course,) all of which teaches kids the importance of 'work' and daily routine.
Animals also bring a sense of hope, the knowledge they will grow up, learn new tricks, have cute babies etc. And yet, animals live in the 'now' and spending time with them allows children to forget any anxieties or fears and simply enjoy the immediacy an animal brings to 'today.'
But what about children with 'special educational needs?' Those who are trapped within their bodies or minds, those with less opportunity to interact with others and those who miss so many experiences which other children take for granted?
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) utilises the positive aspects of animals and uses them to help children (and adults) with social, cognitive, physical or behavioural problems. In many countries AAT is common, however in the UAE it's not been widely recognised- that is, until now!
AAT can assist children with autism, speech delays, developmental delays, developmental disabilities and ADHD to encourage communication, build rapport, create hope, develop fine and gross motor skills and promote health.
While there's really no limit to the types of animal which can be used for AAT, the most common are certainly: dogs, horses, cats, rabbits and dolphins.
Riding For The Disabled Association Dubai
Established in 1998, the Riding for the Disabled Association of Dubai (RDAD) was launched by patron Her Highness Sheikha Hassa Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Now, fourteen years later, the group has a permanent (and beautiful) home at Desert Palm Resort, over 60 regular riders, an enthusiastic gang of volunteers from all walks of life and 10 dedicated RDAD horses.
While riders disabilities range from autism, cerebral palsy and Downs to spina bifida and various learning difficulties, one thing they all have in common is their passion for horses and horse riding. Reema, mum of Ryan and Adam, two boys with microcephaly says, "it's not just the riding, the boys love just being with the horses, they enjoy grooming and even just talking to them."
Therapeutic riding works wonders all because the horses' movement closely resembling that of a human. The children, sitting astride the horses, move in harmony with this motion, which strengthens their backs, their core and improves general posture. For many with physical complications, this sensation is often one they will never achieve on their own.
Fouad is 5 years old and suffers from cerebral palsy, mum Alia explains that he has complications with his leg muscles which severely restrict his movement. "But on a horse he moves like any other rider," she says. After two years riding she says she can see a marked improvement in his posture, inner thigh mobility and fine motor skills. "Fouad has so many therapies each week, but this is the only one he truly loves and looks forward to!"
"For Fouad, the best thing is the fact he has something that's truly 'his,' he can't play football, rugby or cricket like the other boys, but he can ride and there's not many of his friends who can do that," she says.
Instructor Manuela says, "Therapy riding allows kids to step outside the trap of their disability. In fact, it removes the negative from their disability altogether." It's such a unique holistic therapy, to sit on a horse is to mimic human movement."
As each child can require three or four volunteers, RDAD is active in attracting and training their dedicated team of volunteers. A diverse bunch, they come from all over Dubai and all walks of life. There's teens who are completing their Duke of Edinburgh Awards, mums and dads whose kids have flown the roost and several stay-at-home mums.
Volunteer Kevin says, "we wanted to do something different, help out somewhere useful and this is it. Being here brings you back down to earth. We live in Springs at the moment but are about to move to Abu Dhabi, but we've discussed it and plan to drive back to Dubai for our committed RDAD days."
RDAD is busy throughout the week. During the day, there's group visits from many of Dubai's special education needs centres, then in the afternoons and evenings kids come with their parents for both private and group lessons.
Information: RDAD, Desert Palm, Dubai. Visit www.rdad.ae for more information. For lesson schedules, volunteer requirements, rider applications and other general programme details, contact RDAD instructors on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Therapeutic Riding with Hoofbeatz
Next, I join a group of eight boisterous young adults from Rashid Pediatric Therapy Centre at Hoofbeatz Equestrian Centre. The group of eight teens, primarily with hearing impairments, are here for the seriously fun business of horse riding.
Aged between 13 and 17 the teens are what could only be described as enthusiastic. As they rush into the purpose built tent, where Hoofbeatz is housed, their excitement is infectious. Teacher Debbie who's accompanied them from Rashid, says, "horse riding is one of the most popular activities at the centre, the kids look forward to it all week!"
To prove her point, she tells me- Hashim (17) arrived a the centre earlier in the morning in a worryingly bad mood, so bad in fact, they thought he might have to be sent home again, however, once reminded of his horse riding lesson later in the morning, he not only cheered up but became visibly excited.
Having been riding for several months now, the kids are eager to take the reins without help from the volunteers, although each still has a dedicated riding instructor, to compensate for the various different levels of ability and communication difficulties.
As they practice steering through cones and stops and starts, the kids become visibly more confident and relaxed. Then they work through a series of exercises to build muscle and develop their balance, which also help get in tune with their instructor for the rest of the lesson. Using a mix of mime, demonstration and lip reading the teens and their instructors seem to have few communication issues during the lesson.
I ask one of the instructors about communication, and she smiles, "we get by just fine on a bit of mime and lots of mimic, plus i make sure i enunciate everything really well to help my students lip read."
Zia (17), Omer (14) and Saad (17) all give a vigorous double thumbs up when i ask them how much they enjoy riding. All three say that riding alone, without a volunteer to lead them and trotting are their favourite parts of the lesson. Their greatest wish seems to be, one day becoming good enough to ride outside in the desert.
Information: Hoofbeatz, Al Ain Road opposite the Outlet Mall, Dubai. If you would like to know more about Hoofbeatz work with Rashid Centre or to volunteer with the group- visit www.hoofbeatz.com or call: 056 942 4551.
SENSE Animal Therapy
The SENSE Animal Assisted Therapy team are making a house visit in Springs, when i meet them. We're here to see ten year old Louna who has such a rare genetic disorder that it is yet to be named. Louna isn't particularly interested in us, mainly because we are accompanied by one of her favourite 'friends-' Chubby a bounding, happy Cocker Spaniel.
Chubby has been trained to as a 'therapist' by Zahra Poonawala his trainer. She too is a therapist and together they spend an hour a week helping Louna improve her fine motor skills, concentration, social interaction and more. Louna, a student at Rashid School, has various weekly therapies both in school and after, however, her favourite is the hour she spends walking, grooming and 'playing' with Chubby.
After a walk around the park, which allows both 'therapist' and student to relax a little, Zahra starts working on Louna's counting. As they count the dog biscuits out loud together, Chubby wags his tail over-enthusiastically in anticipation.
Next they move onto flashcards, the theme of which is 'doggie fun.' There's one with a brush, representing grooming, another for his favourite ball and more for food, water and his other toys. Louna's job is to match them to the real life items in the garden that Zahra has brought along. She does well, she begins well, then as she starts to lose focus as the exercise progresses, Zara uses Chubby to bring her back to the job in hand.
As I watch the session I begin to realise that although Zahra and mum Katrine set-out the activities and encourage Louna, it's Chubby's job to continually refocus and re-energise her during each task. As she flags or begins to cry, Zahra quickly swaps the task for a pat or high five with the dog, before reintroducing the 'work' to a revitalised Louna.
As Louna and Zahra set off around the park for another 'spin' with Chubby I talk to mum Karine about the difference Chubby has made to their lives. "Louna just loves animals now," she says. "It's a welcome hour in our week, when he comes to visit. Before she wouldn't touch or connect with any animals, but now, since her therapy with Chubby we have a bunny which she loves to take care of each day."
Founder and manager of SENSE, Aditi Sen tells me Chubby didn't just fall into this line of work. "He was assessed along with many other dogs by our international consultant, she found him to be the best fit for companionship and socialisation therapy. We have another dog, a Labrador who works with patients with low self-esteem."
Right now, Chubby and his friends at SENSE (bunnies, a horse, a pony and even a goat) are regular fixtures around the special educational needs schools of Dubai helping children and young adults improve their communication, encouraging behaviour change, building self esteem and simply sharing the joy that spending time with animals brings.
SENSE has several tailored programmes for both individuals and groups. Home therapy programmes include: sensory. speech, occupational therapy, physical and psychotherapy.For schools there's a therapy programme ideal for those with the behavioural and social problems associated with ADHD Developmental delays and ADD. A counselling and Learning Support programme which deals with low self-esteem and academic concerns, and a newly created reading club which uses the animals to help encourage a love of reading.
The SENSE nature based inclusion camp runs during the Christmas and Easter holidays at the Al Tamimi Farm. The camps see SEN children and their carers spend several days discovering the fun of life on the farm along with crafts and nature tours. Mum Sulekha says, "The Spring Camp gave my daughter an opportunity to explore the outdoors, have fun activities with animals and do indoor activities related to that day's theme. ...We ourselves were very surprised to find out how much she loved petting, feeding and playing with the animals."
Information: SENSE is based at Al Tamimi Stables, Sharjah. For more information on SENSE programmes and courses visit- www.sense.ae or call 055 748 3178