At Terminal 2 of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a three-year-old boy tugs at the fur of Angel, a one-and-half-year-old Golden Retriever, hoping to get a reaction. The dog does not turn a hair and, true to her name, tolerates his curiosity with preternatural patience. As his mother admonishes the little boy, the dog’s handler intervenes – “These are therapy dogs. They won’t hurt him, and they have been trained to comfort and de-stress nervous passengers.” Mother and son both relax as they pet the dogs, and thank the handlers with wide grins before they walk away.

Angel and her colleagues – a year-old Labrador named Muffin and a 14-month-old Shitzu called Cocoa – are comfort dogs being handled by Fur Ball Story, a Noida-based organisation that aims to leverage the stress-reducing effect of human-dog interactions. Every weekend, co-founders Animesh Katiyar and Srishti Sharma travel to Mumbai and bring their dogs to the international airport from 6 pm to 1 am, hoping that the energetic and friendly canines can help passengers feel relaxed and de-stressed before they fly out of the city.

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport became the first Indian airport to begin hosting such a service in September 2015 with three Labradors handled by Animal Angels, a city-based organisation that specialises in Animal-Assisted Therapy. Katiyar and Sharma of Fur Ball Story took over from them last December. The duo says they have seen the dogs make a positive difference to several passengers.

Katiyar recalled that a French woman broke into tears while she petted Cocoa, because he reminded her of her own dog. She could not bring her dog to the country due to some issues with paperwork, she told Katiyar. “She sat with us for a good half-an-hour and she told me that her time in India was terrible without her dog, but she was now going back home with a happy memory of the country,” he said.

Several passengers, who know about the presence of Fur Ball Story at the airport, seek the dogs out before they can walk to their boarding gate. “My brother read about them online and that why we are here early,” said Tushar Chopra, a 25-year-old investment banker. “We wanted to come and meet the dogs.”

While dog lovers stop by to pet the canines and swap stories about their pets, people who don’t know how they feel about dogs get a chance to understand the animals as they cautiously befriend Cocoa and Angel.

Helping children feel better

The dogs often have a remarkable effect on children, who tend to get anxious or cranky at airports. “A lot of parents get to know after coming here and meeting our dogs that the kids actually want to have dogs, and they’re really fond of dogs,” Sharma said.

Although there are a lot of children who want to meet the dogs, their parents often don’t want them to pet the dogs because of their own fears, Katiyar said. “That’s why we have a Shitzu on board with us, because people who are scared of the dog are scared mainly of the size. They don’t realise that the smaller dogs are actually more moody.”

The handlers normally pick up Cocoa and take him to the parents and reassure them that he won’t harm the children. “We speak to them for good 15 minutes to convince them to come to Angel,” Katiyar said. “Although Cocoa is the one who opens the gateway to Angel and Muffin, our purpose is defeated if we make them accepting of a breed like a Shitzu, and not other dogs. That would be discriminatory, and would actually go against our message. We are trying to make people sensitive to animals, and we have to make them interact with big dogs.”

How it started

The idea for Fur Ball Story took root when Katiyar and Sharma were students at Symbiosis Law School in Noida. “Our college got two Labrador pups on campus, and the atmosphere in the college changed,” said Sharma. “The first-year students who used to feel homesick started feeling happier and fifth-year students who never came to college started attending for the dogs.”

Inspired by the difference that the dogs made to the lives of their colleagues, Katiyar and Sharma, along with Arushi Dixit, started the organisation in September 2016. Since its inception, Fur Ball Story has travelled to several schools, and more than 50 corporate offices in Mumbai and Delhi with Angel, Cocoa, and Muffin, hoping to de-stress people and sensitise them towards animals.

“We started with corporate offices because the schedules of the people who work there can be quite hectic and stressful,” Sharma said. “It is wonderful to see their reactions when we take our dogs to such places. We see a change in the enthusiasm with which people work.”

Despite the warm reception they have received at the airport, the duo says that they often encounter people who are openly sceptical about the idea of therapy dogs. “We have trouble with elderly people, because while they were growing up, they were raised with the notion that they should stay away from dogs because they always bite,” Katiyar said.

Training therapy dogs

According to the co-founders of Fur Ball Story, these assumptions can be countered by therapy dogs if handlers select and train the right kind of puppy. “In order to be trained as a therapy dog, every puppy has to pass a standard temperament test,” said Katiyar. “They are then given basic and advanced obedience training, and are also trained in crowded surroundings, like marketplaces, which demand social interaction.” Since there is no formal certifying authority for comfort dogs in India, the therapy dogs at Fur Ball Story have been certified by the Hong Kong Therapy Dogs Association.

Despite the training, however, the dogs tend to get tired after greeting people continuously for two hours. Katiyar and Sharma allow Angel, Cocoa and Muffin a few short naps and walks at regular intervals to ensure they do not get mentally or emotionally exhausted. “Although they are here to be petted, they should like it,” Katiyar said. “Whenever someone new joins the group, Angel goes and sits next to them, and that’s how I know she wants to meet someone, and I don’t force her to socialise with someone she doesn’t want to meet. But she’s mostly very friendly. Cocoa is a smaller dog, and he doesn’t have the physical capacity to last throughout the evening. So we take them to a garden area ever hour-and-a-half or so, so that they can be away from people and rest.”

The entire exercise can be emotionally and physically exhausting for the handlers as well. “Forty per cent of the work is done by [the] dog’s training and 60% is the handler’s contribution, because we are supposed to bridge the gap between the dog and the people,” Sharma said. But they find that the task they accomplish is worth the effort.

“We want to stop stress at the root, so that it doesn’t escalate into depression,” said Katiar. “Ultimately, our organisation is about spreading the unconditional love which only an animal can give.”

All images courtesy Fur Ball Story.