Humans weren’t the only ones affected by last year’s strict lockdowns and quarantine measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. At the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), a group of dogs being trained to be emotional support dogs were noticeably depressed, neglected, and hungry.
“They had made friends with students and faculty and staff,” says Khrysta Imperial Rara, assistant professor of the UPD College of Mass Communication. “They didn’t understand why their friends disappeared and nobody gave them food anymore. They lost weight and became depressed. So I thought of another project to make the dogs relevant again. That project is UPD SAGIP K9.”
“Since the Philippines is prone to natural and man-made disasters, I thought it might be good for UP to have a K9 unit that could help the community in case of emergencies,” adds Khrysta. “UPD Sagip K9 is now part of UP Diliman’s disaster response plan.” (Read: The furry heroes in the post-quake search and rescue operations in Pampanga)
Described as a true community effort, UPD Sagip K9 is made up of human handlers and their furry, four-legged trainees. The former consists of faculty, staff, security personnel, the UP Special Services Brigade, and campus residents. The latter are pets of residential handlers and campus dogs that have taken up residence in the campus’ various colleges.
“They were fed by faculty, staff, students, residents, and security guards. Now, since they are part of SAGIP, we take care of them. They have food, a roof over their heads, vaccinations, medical attention, if needed,” says Khrysta. (Read: Checklist: 5 Things Responsible Pet Owners Focus On)
Khrysta, project manager of UPD SAGIP K9, together with dog behaviorist, dog trainer, and UPD Sagip K9 Coach Onayd Lumbao, update My Pope Philippines on the training so far, if an old dog can learn new tricks, and dog training’s benefits to handlers.
How is training going?
Khrysta: A team is composed of a dog and his or her handler. We started out with 18 teams but only 12 teams made it to the end of the Phase 1 training. The training required us to practice three days a week and some were not able to keep up with the schedule.
The dogs and their handlers train to work as a team to search, help the human and animal victims of disaster. The foundational training lasted four months. We are preparing to start the second phase of the training.
Eleven of the 12 dogs in the unit are aspins. Six of the dogs were trained last year to be UPD Emotional Support Dogs. (Read: These dogs are also serving as frontliners during the quarantine!)
Can you still, as the saying goes, teach an old dog new tricks?
Coach Onayd: It is much easier to train younger dogs, but the older ones can be trained—though it takes longer and requires a lot of patience from the handlers.
Our dogs are either rescued or homeless, so we do not have much available information on their background. We can only rely on the behaviors that surface anytime. Most of them exhibit shyness and aggression towards other dogs, a very common coping mechanism among strays. The solution is “socialization,” that is, slowly exposing them to other dogs in different scenarios and environments.
Another approach is “counter-conditioning”—rewarding them with treats and other pleasant things in the presence of other dogs. This exercise tells the dog “each time I see them, something good happens.” (Read: This ‘Pinoy Dog Whisperer’ redefines the meaning of responsible pet ownership)
We know what training does to the dog. What does training do to the handler?
Coach Onayd: Dog handler exercises offer discipline, physical exercise, and are emotionally therapeutic.
Can people join your group?
Khrysta: We would love to welcome more people to the group! But right now, resources are limited and government rules make it difficult. I hope that we will be able to figure out a way to do this in the near future.
What we are doing can be done by other campuses, barangays, villages, and subdivisions. They can set up their own volunteer search and rescue groups and train with their pet dogs. I hope they will consider the friendly stray dogs who are very talented and intelligent too. Many stray dogs would do anything to get adopted or be given a job or role in the community. (Read: 3 Personalities Who Are Staunch Advocates of Animal Rights)