A different graduation
Last Saturday, I had to attend a different kind of graduation — for 12 “scent dogs” — at UP Diliman. Let me clarify right away, not dogs sprayed with colognes; not a good practice since those scents sometimes have essential oils that are toxic to dogs. Plus dogs, I feel, are not meant to be spritzed with scents that might interfere with their own sense of smell, which is probably their greatest asset for survival, for themselves, and for humans.
The graduating dogs that day went through five months of training, held most Saturdays, with dog behaviorist Ronald (Onayd) Lumbao, Coach Onayd to everyone. Onayd has a long history with UP Diliman, founding a group called Dog Scouts of the Philippines some 20 years ago and the first to bring clicker training here, which is a humane form of animal training that doesn’t use chokers and punishments. Very liberal and UP, right?
Onayd left the Philippines for a few years so I was happy to hear he had returned, just as UP Diliman was building up, pushed by the tireless Prof. Khrysta Rara, a humane management program of our thousands of dogs and cats—mostly semi-domesticated.
The program is built around TNVR or trap, neuter, vaccinate, and release, where, instead of exterminating them, we “trap” (actually gather, with the help of the humans they’ve befriended) and then vaccinate and neuter (“kapon” in Filipino) them and, finally, release them back to the environment where they’re found. That way, they no longer reproduce and at the same time will defend their territory and prevent new animals from coming in.
Humans in their territory are also “trained” for responsible co-existence with the animals, for example, animals are fed in one place properly distanced from canteens and other food outlets.
The animals become part of the campus ecology, dogs helping security guards and our Security Service Brigades (SSB) to guard the place, cats to help control vermin and pests.
We’ve also mobilized the animals to provide emotional support, especially for the students. This is where Coach Onayd provided the first “classes” for dogs. To become good emotional support animals, dogs need to be trained as well so they don’t react to being handled by humans, sometimes by a whole enthusiastic “barkada” (peer group).
Those classes were amazing, showing how formerly suspicious, sometimes even hostile, stray animals can become very effective at providing solace and comfort to humans.
The lockdown interrupted the activities with animals but in January this year, with a better understanding of preventing COVID-19, we launched a new training for scent dogs. Coach Onayd has intentionally avoided the term “disaster rescue” dogs, pointing out this is only the first level of training with basic skills of navigating different terrains, including spaces that usually spook animals, for example, tunnels, or elevated areas. For this level, animals were trained as well to sniff out people hidden away to simulate those trapped in a disaster area.
Our new graduates and their handlers—most of whom were security guards and SSBs—displayed their new skills last Saturday, with some fanfare. Rara, a faculty member of the College of Mass Communication and fervent animal welfare advocate, shared stories about each of the graduates—how they were transformed from scraggly, mangy, unapproachable to the most loving and responsive dogs.
I hadn’t been to the Diliman campus in months so it was so good to see the dogs, many of whom I knew. Survivors all, some from the most difficult of circumstances. Tiny Nano who had to have a steel bone pin inserted after someone attacked him and fractured his leg. Dagz, a stray hit by a van while pregnant, and saved, together with three pups through a cesarean.
All their stories involved kind people, several security guards, who ended up bonding with them and becoming their “classmates” in the scent dog training. The stories prove that dogs, whether a street “aspin” or an expensive purebred, all have potential to work with humans in myriad ways. The seeing eye dog is only one of dozens of new types of service dogs, many now tapped for their acute sense of smell. In other countries there are dogs that can sniff their way to diagnose patients with cancers, epilepsy, and now, COVID-19.
We’re only beginning in UP; although Diliman-based, the prototype welfare and training programs now have some support as well from the UP System. With time, and appropriate to a university setting, we might even have different “degree” programs for the animals, and their humans.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.