PORTUGUESE WATER dogs are being used as a therapy tool for mentally handicapped children and adolescents with poor attendance at school in the Algarve.
The Ria Formosa Kennel, in Quinta do Marim near Olhão, homes many of these national breeds, which were traditionally used by fisherman to help locate schools of fish in the sea. Young people are invited to the kennel to become volunteers and spend time playing and bonding with the dogs.
The programme has already helped a number of children and adolescents improve their social skills. It has motivated them to attend school and end of term grades for some children have improved substantially from previous terms. The dogs are often entered into dog grooming competitions and the children are able to spend time brushing or bathing their favourites.
The children bond with the Portuguese water dogs, which is encouraged at the kennel and is part of the therapeutic programme. The children are made to feel that they can come to the kennel whenever they choose and this instils comfort in them, especially those who experience an unhappy home life.
The programme invites young people during the school holidays to the kennel and, once the holidays are over, an accord is reached between the young people and the kennel owners, where if their grades in school continue to improve, they will be rewarded with unlimited access to their favourite animals. However, if there are no signs of scholastic improvement, the young people will be unable to have this.
Positive results were seen in children from the Associação Algarvia de Pais e Amigos de Crianças Diminuí das Mentais, a regional support group for mentally handicapped children as well as their parents and friends. Autistic children, who have spent time at the kennel, have begun to show signs of improvement in their communication and motor skills as well as their ability to understand their surroundings.
The programme has also improved the attention span of children as well as their hyperactivity. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been enroled in the programme and have drastically improved their condition.
The dog therapy has also helped some children who previously did not let anyone touch them. With the inquisitiveness of the dogs and the proximity to the children, they began to feel more comfortable with people coming near them. Parents feel at ease with the level of professionalism and knowledge shown by the volunteers at the kennel.
The owner of the Ria Formosa Kennel, Carla Peralta, believes that one of the main aims is to inform people about these dogs and preserve the breed. The kennel only has a couple of adult volunteers, the rest are young people, but anyone is welcome to go to the kennel and volunteer.
In an effort to remain open, the owner took a dog grooming course in Lisbon and now dog owners can take their pets to the kennel to have professional hair cuts. Some of the Portuguese water dogs at the kennel have undergone training programmes to become rescue dogs for earthquakes and fires to help the emergency services locate trapped citizens.
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