Written by Sumona DasGupta*
Phulki came to us in the spring of 2016 just as Delhi was transitioning from winter into summer. Our first glimpse of her was a little puppy, honey coat gleaming in the brilliant sunlight of the spring, oblivious to her surroundings, fast asleep curled under a bench in a narrow lane next to a dhaba in Delhi’s bustling Shantiniketan locality. The lane was coming alive in the morning. Her three brothers were running helter-skelter, people were milling around the dhaba, the aroma of fresh tawa parathas was wafting through the air, horns were blaring, traffic and people were jostling. She took not the slightest notice and continued to snooze calmly through this cosmic chaos.
At the time we had no idea that this puppy would show the potential to blossom into a therapy dog. In the hindsight, I wonder now whether her innate ability to remain calm in the midst of chaos was an early sign. All we wanted at the time was a family dog and one off the streets who needed a loving home rather than a pedigree from a pet shop. Cute as her brothers were I was clear we wanted a female Indie, the quintessentially doubly marginalized in India.
We did no temperament testing and did not even think about looks. We just picked her up from below the bench with the blessings of her foster father, the kind Dhabawala Bhulender, who loved dogs but was at his wit’s end trying to care of and finding food for all of them, given his own life circumstances.
Accompanying our family that morning was Latika Khanna Chawla the dog lover who helped us find Phulki. At the request of Bhulender, Latika, who works tirelessly with so-called “stray” dogs had sponsored the spay procedure of Phulki’s mother after the weaning period was over. The puppies were now out on their own, dodging traffic, sleeping under a bench, and making do with Dhaba leftovers. My son, a passionate dog lover who had volunteered at Delhi’s animal shelter Friendicoes, had connected with Latika who is committed to finding homes for Desi and rescue puppies and she had encouraged us to adopt one from this litter.
We named her Phulki – which means a spark in Bengali – and brought her home to IIT Delhi to live with us. Phulki showed grit and intelligence right from the start. On her first visit to a large doggy day out at the vet’s clinic just a day after we adopted her she protected herself by wedging herself under my chair and making herself unreachable to the big dogs who were curious about her. From that vantage point, she coolly watched the proceedings with her almond eyes. She showed no signs of fear and had no intention of being intimidated by spoilt dolled up dogs at this crazy party! The streets of Delhi had prepared her well and Phulki was a survivor. She sat on my lap after a while and allowed humans to come and pet her without flinching. She was the cynosure of many eyes – the only ‘desi’ in a sea of exotic pedigrees! To our amusement, she came home with a certificate that said “most obedient dog” and a bag of treats! We had not even begun training her yet!
She surprised us the first night by sleeping peacefully in her new home without whining or crying. We were all prepared to keep a clock ticking next to her ear (textbook wisdom!) to comfort her if she missed her brothers or mother. But she needed no such props. She had made herself comfortable as best she could with her littermates under the cramped bench near the dhaba and she made herself equally at home in the comfort of her own little bed at our house. No sweat! This remarkable adaptability is another sterling quality of our Indies and actually makes them good candidates for therapy dogs who are required to adapt quickly to different environments.
In our home and garden at IIT Delhi Phulki proceeded to play with joyful abandon even without her littermates, running off with our shoes, rolling over in the grass, darting underwater pipes, digging trenches, chasing butterflies! Today she still retains her pioneering spirit but it has been channelled into swimming and sprinting activities. Her impulse to dash after wildlife whether squirrels or peacocks has also been sublimated over time though she will still chase the crow who dares perch on her balcony at home! With the introduction of a household structure and set of rules and boundaries she has accepted the fact that since she now lives with her human pack, tables cannot be chewed, she cannot beg while humans eat at the table, she cannot be possessive over the living room couch or the bed, there is a Lashman rekha before the kitchen which she cannot breach, she has to wait for us to say ‘Phulki take it’ before starting on her meal, and she has to offer a sit and looks at us to give her permission to run out the main door.
All this and much more we learnt under the wonderful stewardship of leading dog behaviourist Adnan Khan, founder of K9 school India, who came over to our place to educate us on how to train Phulki and set rules and boundaries. Using his unique approach he trained me – her primary caregiver - on how to train her so that we could establish a harmonious relationship at home. I tried my best to reinforce these learnings and share them with my husband and son, so that there was consistency in the messages we were sending Phulki. Phulki, in turn, showed great eagerness to learn. Whoever said that desi dogs are ‘hostile’ and difficult to train? Like all dogs, they need a combination of firm handling and tons of affection given at the right time.
Phulki gets lots of affection, playtime, treats and walks but there are rules and boundaries at home and on walks. She loves learning and is observant and intelligent. Though she had never lived indoors before joining our family, Phulki, only three months at the time, literally took less than 24 hours to understand the rules of the toilet game. All we had to go is gently guide her outside a couple of times and shower her with praise when she did her business. It helped that for her doing it outside was more natural than inside because she had never been “inside”. Yes, every time she toileted outside in those early days we clapped our hands and chorused “what a clever girl!” She may not have understood what that meant but she knew she had just done something to please us! That was the fun part for us and for her! She learnt joyfully and we loved praising her.
However, responsible pet parenting is not all fun and games. Setting rules boundaries and teaching basic obedience is not always easy on humans and can at times be emotionally challenging. Let’s face it; we have an adorable pooch with liquid brown almond shaped eyes who tilts her head from one side to another when you speak to her! How cute is that? Is it difficult to consciously not to make eye contact with her while humans are eating at the table, ignore the almond eyes and proactively move her away from the dining table with a firm “no”? You bet it is! Much easier to give in and start feeding her table scraps. Except that if you do you cannot expect your dog to ever learn impulse control. So the rules were institutionalized! No table scraps EVER. No exceptions. No one, absolutely no one is to make eye contact with her while eating at the table and mean mummy will body block her every single time she approaches the dining table when humans are eating! Yes, this is tougher on us than on the dog! But teaching this level of impulse control is the first step.
Difficult though it is, I firmly turn my back on her and ignore her when I see she is about to embark on a jumpy greeting regardless of how long I have been away. Once she is in her place in a “down” she gets a shower of praise and attention. She is figuring out that a down position in her designated “place” - typically mats or rugs scattered across our home - has way more payoffs than jumping all over humans. Activating a few home deliveries of boiled chicken when the dog is in down position in those mats will drive the message home! I do not bribe Phulki. But I use food as an incentive because she is food motivated. It seems foolish not to.
We also began to understand how much our own behaviour influences the way Phulki reacts or does not react. Just by cutting the drama out as we leave and come back we ensured that she never developed separation anxiety to begin with instead of allowing this to take over and then trying to extinguish it. Yes, it does mean not saying a protracted bye when we leave and not starting the baby talk as soon as we come back! We wanted to instil that neither the act of leaving home or coming back is an event! Is it easy? No! Counterintuitive for humans? Perhaps. But that has been part of our learning curve. Phulki needs to know that going out of the house and coming back is no big deal, she needs to understand that walking out that door does not translate into abandoning her. Today Phulki does not stress she just chills with her music when we are not home (though she is never left for long hours) confident that she is too precious to us to be abandoned! She is smart enough to have figured that one out! That too has been an asset in building the foundations of a therapy dog.
The making of a therapy dog also requires you to be alert to training opportunities in the course of an average day. It does not have to be a formal session. Let me illustrate with an example. Therapy dogs cannot afford to be easily startled. The process of learning and reinforcing this at home - though already ingrained in most Indies who have lived on the streets of a busy city - can come in unexpected ways. Even the onset of a thunderstorm is a training opportunity! The first time there was a thunderstorm with lightning and thunder after Phulki joined our family I remember sitting with her next to me on a sofa in my balcony just reading a book as though I had no care in the world. She soon stopped reacting when she saw I was taking no notice and proceeded to actually enjoy the rumbling thunderclouds! As soon as she was totally calm regardless of the elemental sound and fury outside, she got a bumper crop of her favourite steamed fish. Till date, she is unfazed by storms. No ‘thundershirts’ needed for this resilient Indie or a designated safe space to hide. She is pretty cool with crackers in the neighbourhood during Diwali too though she probably deems it as a bit of a nuisance.
I feel it is the combination of high spirits, playfulness and obedience that makes Phulki a good candidate for therapy work. Phulki is feisty and fearless, a legacy of her days on the streets. Clearly, however, much more is needed in a therapy dog. This is where exposure to different situations, people and other dogs come in. We enrolled her in puppy group classes with other dogs at K9 school that helped her gain confidence and composure. A dog who can play confidently with other dogs three times her size and does not aggress, while at the same time not allowing herself to be bullied, is likely to carry these traits into her interaction with humans.
Another opportunity in the making of Phulki as a therapy dog came from simply boarding her at K9 school when I have had to travel on work. There she has interacted with many humans- trainers, kennel staff, groups who have come for training in dog handling including a group of ex Nepal army men who were to be posted with the canine unit in Afghanistan. These presented myriad training opportunities and Phulki got the chance to hone her interactive skills time and time again. A lot of her training happened outside of formal sessions- in the home, in the kennel, on the field with other dogs and with other humans, she was meeting for the first time.
This is not to downplay the role of structured training, however. Phulki has been through two formal courses - basic obedience and an advanced course at K9 school. But more than obedience alone we have also tried to work on her basic temperament, building on her innate strengths and personality.
Sometimes sheer chance and opportunity come knocking. Let me elaborate. For the kind of work we envision for Phulki it is imperative that she does not react to children. Fortunately, she lives on IIT campus and when I take her for a walk we regularly encounter kids going to school with buses parked around, zigzagging on roller skates, enjoying recess in the playground of the Central School which we pass on our walks. The kids in the school playground recognize Phulki now and the whole class greets her in unison. “Phulki sit” they chorus as she trots along and she obliges much to their delight! There has been a natural desensitization process to noise and excited activity associated with children. In that sense, the IIT Delhi campus has been her stomping ground and her training ground!
Sometimes the turn of circumstances also play a role in the process. One of her best human friends is the son of my domestic help – 13-year-old Ronaq who sometimes accompanies his mother to work only to play with Phulki. In learning to reinforce rules and boundaries even while enjoying their chor police sessions around the garden Ronaq has quite unintentionally emerged as part of the training plan for Phulki. At the same time, he has himself benefitted by growing in confidence. The child of a single mother, Ronaq has had a traumatic childhood and remains rather taciturn and withdrawn. The interactions with Phulki have opened new vistas of communication. They are best buddies who play, watch TV together and Ronaq has now expressed a desire to learn swimming so that he can accompany Phulki in the pool. By providing comfort and companionship to Ronaq, Phulki already steps into the role of a therapy dog without doing it consciously or as part of a formal session or intervention. Just being with Ronaq is practice and the two best buddies understand and communicate in a language all of their own.
As the mother and primary caregiver of Phulki I am often asked what goes into the making of a therapy dog? In a nutshell, I would say nature and nurture combine to create one. Phulki is blessed with a natural curiosity, strong powers of observation and native intelligence like most Indies which has made her a fast learner. Her early experiences on the streets of Delhi taught her survival skills which were invaluable and made her fearless and eager to take to new forms of training- she showed the feisty spirit to go that extra mile. Independent yet affectionate, non-aggressive yet spirited, I now believe Phulki has always had it in her to grow into this special role. However I know that in the absence of the guidance of a passionate and committed dog behaviourist like Adnan Khan, the training and guidance she (and we) received from him first hand and her early exposure in interacting with humans and other canines at the K9 school facility and on IIT Delhi campus, her potential would have remained untapped.
Today all of us in our family - Phulki’s human pack – want to share her with those who could benefit from her confident, affectionate, joyful presence. We remain committed to K9 school’s therapy dog project and feel proud and grateful that Phulki was spotted on time and slowly trained to be one of the pioneers of this cutting-edge program. I hope this also sends a strong message that our Indies are as good as any pedigree dog when it comes to growing into this role.
*Sumona DasGupta is the proud mother and caregiver of Phulki the Indie therapy dog. She is also an independent researcher, consultant and writer based in New Delhi and a Political Scientist by training.
Disclaimer: Parts of this story have earlier appeared in an article published in DailyO.
Acknowledgements: Pictures courtesy Sumona DasGupta, Latika Chawla, Karnika Palwa and K9 School, India