International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners

A New Breed of Dog

by Elizabeth Tai

A firm believer in the intelligence of dogs, I was nevertheless impressed when Biman, a four-year-old Alsatian, got behind Anthony Thanasayan's wheelchair to push it up the slope.

"Biman, come here,'' said Anthony, gesturing to his left. Biman seemed reluctant to let his master traverse the slope himself, but he obeyed, padding to Anthony's side.

"I didn't have to teach him to push the wheelchair. It was all Biman's idea,'' said Anthony, adding that we often underestimate how innovative dogs can be.

Regular readers of Anthony's weekly Wheel Power column in Section 2 would be familiar with his dogs Biman, Vai (a Rottweiler) and Soolam (a Golden Retriever). They are often amazed at the intelligence and efficiency of the dogs who do nearly everything for Anthony. They wake him up, pick up after him, push his wheelchair, and even help with the laundry.

Biman pushing Anthony's wheelchair. This action was Biman's own idea. With dogs like his, it is not difficult to guess Anthony's affection for them.

"They are like my brothers. They are not judgmental about my condition--to them, I'm normal. And they can make me laugh like I've never laughed before. I'm addicted to them,'' said Anthony, 40, his eyes lighting up as he looked down with deep affection upon his canine companions.

Owning a dog was a dream come true for Anthony. As a teenager, he had a mongrel but he wasn't allowed to take care of it.

"I was told that I couldn't look after him. The basic idea is, if you can't even look after yourself, how are you going to look after the dog? And it was true at that time--I wasn't taught to look after myself.''

When Anthony decided to get Vai four years ago, he ran into the same obstacles. Friends and family members discouraged him, saying that a dog would be an added burden. "How are you going to feed it and walk it?'' they asked.

The only words of encouragement came from his best friend Andrew Martin: "Go for it. I'll be there for you. We'll work it out, somehow.''

Together with Andrew, Anthony visited a pet store to get an Alsatian, but what greeted him was a lone Rottweiler pup. Anthony had his reservations about Rottweilers, but changed his mind when the puppy broke out of the box he was put in, and started jumping and licking him. The Rottweiler pup reminded Anthony of himself.

"Nobody was going to box me up and tell me that I couldn't do things. Like the disabled, the Rottweiler is much misunderstood. There is so much awareness that needs to be raised,'' said Anthony.

"Nobody had allowed me to care for another. I was always told I needed care. But the dogs gave me a chance. By loving them, I learnt to love myself. Look at me now--I have three dogs and they are my responsibility alone,'' said a beaming Anthony. Man's best assistant Anthony's only regret is that he did not get his dogs earlier.

"Life could have started earlier. I would've been less shy, more sure of myself, more positive about life. In five years, my dogs have done more for me than what any therapist could ever do in a lifetime,'' said Anthony.

The dogs have also helped Anthony overcome bouts of depression and even improved his health.

Anthony did not realize the full potential of his dogs until he attended a lecture one day. One of the lecturers who was paralyzed from the neck down had a Golden Retriever with him.

"I was thinking, why did the man bring his dog along? Doesn't he know it's a lecture hall?'' recalled Anthony.

Halfway through the lecture, the man suddenly dropped his laser indicator. Anthony was shocked--and greatly impressed--when the dog retrieved it for him.

"We need service dogs in Malaysia so badly,'' Anthony had thought. But a US-trained service dog costs about RM25,000. It was then that Anthony thought of training his dogs to become service dogs. He got on the Internet and made friends with disabled Americans who had dogs and asked them for tips. He also invested in books on dogs. Anthony then started training his dogs three times a day, keeping the training periods short but consistent. Within three to four days, the dogs were responding to his training. With a growing sense of excitement, Anthony began training his dogs to assist him in daily chores. The rest, they say, is history.

The dogs can also sniff out sores on Anthony's body, alerting him to a wound so that he can treat it before it festers. Amazingly, Thanasayan did not train the dogs to do that. "It is something they do naturally,'' he said.

While the dogs may intimidate those who would otherwise find Anthony easy prey, they can be great ice-breakers, too. On many occasions, they have helped Anthony make friends with total strangers.

To Anthony, his dogs are more than pets. "These are my assistants, companions for life. We have a close bond. We understand everything about each other.'' They have given him a new mission: to see trained dogs giving the disabled a new lease of life, enabling them to take control of their lives again. It is with this intention that Anthony started Bivai Dogs, a school to train service dogs for the disabled.

For a start, Anthony had to dig deep into his pockets. But he hopes enough funds will come in to help him build a proper centre complete with staff and helpers. Anthony's dream is that American trainers would come to the centre and teach locals to be dog trainers.

For logistic purposes, Anthony hopes to start with one dog, preferably a Golden Retriever which is easier to work with and is people-friendly. The owner and his dog will need to come in once a week. The dog will be trained to come when it is called, be with its owner at all times and assist with basic chores and activities.

The disabled person will also be trained to look after the dog. "That is important as it is very therapeutic to look after them,'' said Anthony.

There is a golden rule, though: the dog must be allowed to sleep in the owner's room, not in a cage. Of course, the owner would have to be a dog lover.

"The dog is going to be a life-long assistant. It's not an animal or a pet. It's a companion, and this is going to be a partnership,'' said Anthony. Anthony pointed out that not all dogs can become service dogs. And not all dogs can perform similar functions with the same level of efficiency. Pedigrees are easiest to work with as they have fixed behaviour patterns.

"This is our way of gaining independence outside. These dogs will not behave like other dogs. They are trained and do not disturb anyone.''

Anthony looks forward to the day when trained service dogs are allowed freely in public. Even now there are outlets that happily accommodate his dogs. Anthony's dogs have been with him to mamak stalls, restaurants, supermarkets, the church and even a swimming pool.

Anthony and the Rotary Club of Sentul have put together a 15-minute documentary about his life with the dogs to help raise public awareness of the need for service dogs. The documentary tape--which will be available soon--shows how Anthony's dogs assist him in various chores and how they benefit the disabled.

Through the documentary, Anthony hopes to share his life-changing experiences with others who need them.

"Let's stop putting barriers for the disabled. Let's start believing in them. If they are dog lovers, allow this miracle to happen in their lives.''

Yes, miracles happen all the time to those who believe.

Reprinted from The Star, Aug. 17, 2000 (Star Publications, Malaysia)

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