Interviewed by: Madhura Kulkarni
Pets. We all love them. Even if we don’t own a pet, a pet dog walking on street, or a cute photograph of the kittens automatically make us go, awww! There are a number of researches that talk about multiple benefits of petting animals. A few minutes of stroking a pet dog releases ‘feel good’ hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. Animal interactions are even said to lower stress-related measurements such as cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, fear and anxiety.
Shy kids easily bond with pets, become more vocal, grow confident whereas hyperactive children gain focus and are generally happier in the company of pets. In the older adults too, petting has been proved to improve cognitive and emotional well-being.
Knowing that interaction with pets have so many benefits, owning a pet is just not a feasible option for many.
If you are in Pune, The Pet Project is the answer to your petting needs! Conceptualised by two passionate city girls, Ira Hulikavi and Shalaka Mundada, one is a certified human-animal interactions and animal assisted therapist while the other is an animal behaviourist. While Shalaka predominantly manages the pet sitting facility, Ira gets busy planning and organising therapy and petting sessions at The Pet Project.
Womendiaries has been lucky to interact with Ira to understand more about her one of its kind, The Pet Project.
The Pet Project, true to its name is a project and not just a pet sitting facility. What is The Pet Project?
The Pet Project, is not a pet sitting facility at all. The Pet Project, very simply put, is – all forms of human animal interactions. Rooted in theory and practice of animal assisted therapy, animal assisted education and animal assisted activities, we design and implement activities, workshops, play sessions, counselling sessions and so much more as we explore how is it that interactions with animals affect and make an impact on human lives.
How did The Pet Project come to life? Tell us your story!
The Pet Project is the true realization of what I feel passionate about, what I am skilled in and what I am trained for! I am professionally an educationist with a specialization in curriculum and teaching of language and literacy. Before I began my career as a professional in human- animal interactions, I have worked as a classroom teacher, a subject matter expert for English language and head of content development too. My love for animals got me to scour the internet for fields that would utilize my psychology and education background and yet also incorporate animals in my job. That’s when I enrolled for the Animal Human Health certificate program with the University of Denver, USA. And that’s how The Pet Project was born.
You and your colleague both have unique qualifications. Tell us about your certifications. What was the learning experience like? Also, how do the qualifications help you in running your venture?
Shalaka, my colleague and associate has been running “PetSitters” – a premium dog boarding facility for over 10 years now. She is a trained canine behaviourist too. I on the other hand, am training to be an animal assisted therapist. An animal assisted therapist is someone who designs and implements programs, workshops and therapies that integrate interactions with animals in the process. AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) works on the principle that animals can enhance an individual’s social, emotional, cognitive as well as physical functioning. She comes with the experience of handling/training and socializing dogs for interactions with people. I then further work with the dogs to incorporate them into the therapy process and I implement the therapy process as well.
Tell us about your pet partners. What kinds of pets do you house?
I currently primarily work with dogs. I have two beagle girls of my own and they are both trained to work for most therapy programs – with varied audience groups such as older adults, children, children with special needs etc. The team of dogs from PetSitters – a mix of golden retrievers, beagles, Rottweiler, and Indies also partner up with me during my sessions. There are also a couple of rabbits at the PetSitters farm and I facilitate interactions with them as well, mainly for individuals who don’t feel comfortable with dogs.
Is The Pet Project restricted to a place?
Not at all! We do conduct most of our activity workshops at a farm space in Hinjewadi, but we are not restricted to it at all. We also do visitation programs for schools, old age homes, IT companies where we take our team of dogs to their space for a session. In future, I’d also love to do a canine assisted reading program at children’s libraries, schools, activity centres etc.
What does a day at The Pet Project look like?
Busy! Being an entrepreneur has its own quirks! There is so much to do – you’re jotting down new plans/ideas, designing workshops, actually conducting them, counselling, training the pet partners, sharing on social media so as to spread the right kind of information and I could go on and on. It is a mad journey every single day but always a fulfilling one.
Do you think schools should encourage human-animal interaction? What benefits can they derive from such activities? Any experiences with schools?
I absolutely recommend that schools encourage human – animal interactions. I truly believe and have seen, that sometimes, with a pet in tow, we can reach out to even those children, who find it difficult to express and open up. Development of physical and motor skills, communication and expression, confidence and self-esteem enhancement happen beautifully in children in the company of pets. The pets are a non-judgmental, non-threatening and loving aspect of this entire process. We recently did a meet and greet session for the children from Symbiosis International school’s pastoral care unit. Watching those children move up ahead from watching the pets from a distance to taking the pets for a walk by themselves was surely a pleasure. But an even greater sense of achievement came from the fact that each child’s self-esteem was boosted, even the children who would not make eye contact, expressed and communicated confidently. For the children, the pets were the best uncritical and undiscriminating “friends” that they made.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face while operating The Pet Project?
The challenge for me, even today after almost two years of working in this field, remains that this is still a very nascent field in our country. It is new, and hence creating awareness about it becomes as important as actually conducting the workshops and sessions. It becomes essential to put across why and how these experiences can be beneficial for people to see the value in it and then to come forth and try it for themselves.
Do you have any unique experiences or stories with The Pet Project that you would like to share with us?
Cannot think of any one experience. I tried closing my eyes to see what I would remember, but it wasn’t one experience – two years of life this way whizzed in front of my eyes. But I would definitely like to share a special thing here – on Monday 16th July, 2018 – The Pet Project completes two years – it is our two-year birthday!
Define success for you at your venture?
At this stage, I feel immensely motivated and enthusiastic about my venture. It is one of the first of its kind and though it means a lot more responsibility, it also feels extremely rewarding with each successful event/workshop. As of now, we have done a wide range of programs like pet and play therapy carnivals for children with special needs, a visitation program for dementia patients at an old age home, individual play and socializations sessions, pet themed puppet making workshops, pet sibling programs where children get a full experience of being responsible for a living being for two full days, pet interaction visits for school children and so on.
There is something, that can be designed and conducted for every individual, and that I feel is the beauty of this field. Each individual that walks in, comes with a very unique situation and goal to be addressed. Matching the activities and intervention process to the goal is the crucial part of the process. And then to watch the intervention have its desired effect, is a feeling of immense gratification.
Almost every kid wants a pet at some point of time. They sure can visit The Pet Project and quench their petting thirst. However, some parents are scared of dogs and unknowingly restrain children from experiencing pet love. What would you tell such parents?
Send in your kids for our workshops! And we do therapy sessions to reduce phobia as well. On a serious note, we have actually had a lot of parents who don’t like dogs/ who are scared to visit for a session. They always have an option of watching from a distance and believe it or not, we have actually seen them willing to try and interact with the dogs in an attempt to get over the fear. And all this, purely by watching their own kids interact with the dogs.
What are your future plans with The Pet Project?
Eventually, I want The Pet Project to develop into a learning community, a non formal space for teaching and learning. The biggest goal in sight for now is for everyone to know about this field, to see value in these experiences and for us to reach out to the maximum number of people possible. It is new, but a very promising field. The versatility of what can be done is huge. And my goal for The Pet Project will always be that everyone who walks in, walks out with a memorable and valuable experience.
How can somebody interested in enjoying a petting session get in touch with you?
You can reach out to me on +91 7798424116 or write to me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Womendiaries wish The Pet Project immense success a very happy second birthday!