“RUBY, Patch! No!” yells the middle-aged man clad in a white and red customised T-shirt with a logo of a dog with a stethoscope when he sees his golden retriever and white Jack Russell terrier starting to lunge at me. The canines are barking and jumping in excitement at my presence at K-9 Cottage in Jalan Sg Lui, Hulu Langat.
“That’s OK, they’re just being friendly,” I assure him, smiling nervously at the two dogs standing centimetres away from me.
The man calls for his dogs again and this time they obey, following him obediently as he leads me to a cosy shed where we are to have our chat. The sun feels a tad unkind this morning, punishing the gravelled compound cruelly and dampening the mood a little. But the tranquil idyll of this well-maintained place and its friendly furry residents help me forget the scorching heat. Meanwhile, the soothing murmur of the pristine clear river nearby is like music to my ears.
Here on this 0.6-hectare of land is where the fatherly-looking man, Salehin Ibrahim, spends most of his time with his “doctors”, in his role as the primary coordinator for Dr Dog, an animal-assisted therapy programme which was introduced in Hong Kong by the Animals Asia Foundation in 1991 and established here in 2007.
“This is Dr Ruby,” says Salehin with a flourish as he introduces me to the golden retriever that is now sitting quietly by his feet and wagging her tail. As soon as I take my seat, the zippy Jack Russell, a breed known to be spirited, fearless and sassy, puts her front paws playfully on my lap, balancing herself with her hind legs.
Chuckling, Salehin commands: “Down, girl! By the way, that’s Dr Patch. See the brown patch on her left eye? That’s how she got her name! She’s about 5 years old, which is considered quite senior in the dog world. But as you can see, she’s still very playful and energetic.”
To be a certified “doctor”, the dogs must have a good temperament, be friendly to strangers and must be at least 2 years old, explains Salehin, adding: “We can’t have puppies because they’re too playful.” Currently, there are six owner-owned Dr Dogs in the capital and 15 in Penang.
ALTERNATIVE METHOD OF HEALING
According to Animals Asia Foundation’s (a government-registered charity based in Hong Kong that started the Dr Dog programme in 1991) guidelines, animals have been used as an alternative method of healing as far back as the 18th century.
The first documented use of animals in care was at an asylum for the mentally disturbed in England called York Retreat. Established by Quaker merchant William Tuke in 1792, York Retreat differed from the usually severe regimes of asylums during this period in that positive treatments of care were actively sought for patients, which led to the inclusion of small barnyard animals in patients’ daily activities. Patients were given rabbits or poultry to look after and the Quakers soon discovered that this additional care-giving routine not only gave the patients a purpose, but had a calming effect on their overall behaviour.
“It’s true, these dogs have a calming effect on me too,” concurs Salehin, a former banker, looking fondly at Ruby and Patch, both of whom appear to be sleeping. “I used to be so aggressive when I was working my 9-5 job. There was so much stress because of the heavy workload. After the stroke, I slowed down a bit and grew more passionate about life and more caring towards others,” confesses Salehin.
You had a stroke? I ask, taken aback by his confession.
Slowly, Salehin nods his head as his expression turns sombre. “I was at home and without warning, I just collapsed on the floor. When the doctor arrived, my dogs were by my side. They could be very ‘garang’ (fierce) with people, but that day, they didn’t make a single noise. Somehow they knew that the doctor was there to help me so they just sat and watched.”
That incident definitely changed the bachelor’s outlook on life. He fought to live because of his dogs, knowing that no one would take care of them if he was gone. He also vowed to start giving back to society and to find a way to let his dogs play their parts too.
Salehin shares that he discovered about Dr Dog and its programme when he was a volunteer for an animal shelter charity drive organised by the late Sabrina Yeap who was responsible for bringing the Dr Dog programme to Malaysia. He didn’t think twice about signing up as a volunteer and took his dogs along to be trained as “doctors”. When Yeap passed away, Salehin took over as the primary coordinator. These days, he also donates his time to numerous charities such as feeding the homeless.
THE DOCTORS WILL SEE YOU NOW
His passion for animals, especially dogs, started when he was little, shares Salehin, attributing this love to his grandmother who was fond of feeding the dogs that used to loiter around their kampung house in Kuala Kangsar, Perak.
“It skipped a generation though. My parents are not so much into animals like I am,” shares the 55-year-old who was presented with his first dogs when he turned 40, gifts from a friend.
Since beginning his volunteer stints, Ruby and Patch have been his constant companions to orphanages, old folks’ homes and more. Before Ruby and Patch, Salehin owned two other Dr Dogs — a Border collie called Dr Sammy and a Labrador, Dr Kylie — both of whom have since passed away.
“Recently we visited an old folks’ home in Kajang and there was this elderly woman there who kept saying she missed Dr Sammy dearly,” recalls Salehin before proudly adding that it didn’t take long for Dr Ruby to endear herself to the woman. “She patiently listened to the elderly lady’s lament and soon enough, the lady warmed up to her and started giving her kisses and took her for a walk — just like what she did with Dr Sammy.”
“The therapy really works wonders,” continues Salehin, pride in his voice. “You can see people’s faces light up when we bring the dogs over. This is a good programme for any patient, regardless of their race or religion.”
Pausing for thought momentarily, Salehin eventually adds: “I understand how some people can be a bit sensitive when it comes to dogs. But it’s your choice whether to have this therapy or not. We always make sure the residents at the homes we go to are OK with the animals.”
Also, nowadays there’s a special soap recognised by Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) for sertu (act of cleansing after touching something that’s considered ritually unclean) that can be found in most pet shops. “I use it daily,” assures Salehin.
If human doctors have their white coats, these dogs have their red bandanas. Once it’s tied around their neck, they become more serious and ready to serve. “The animals instinctively know that it’s time to be a doctor when I tie the bandana around their neck. They know we’re going for a visit and they always get excited,” shares Salehin, smiling broadly.
MAN’S BEST FRIEND
Prior to his move to Hulu Langat, Salehin led a comfortable city life running a centre for the Dr Dog programme in a residential area. But not everyone was comfortable with the dogs in the vicinity, he recalls. So it was somewhat of a blessing for him to acquire this current plot of land, which has been leased to him for 15 years at no cost. “I just need to really take care of the place,” he confides.
Besides being a centre for Dr Dog, the set up here boasts a swimming pool, which is used for physiotherapy treatments for dogs. There are also boarding facilities from where funds are raised for the programme as everything is self-funded and rely wholly on donations. With Chinese New Year around the corner, Salehin hopes to generate extra income from the boarding services.
“I’ve spent a lot to build this place. I’m probably going to go bankrupt soon,” he says, chuckling. “I lead a simple life now. I plant vegetables and herbs, and use recycled items. I can give you some vegetables if you want,” he says, as I nod enthusiastically. Just as he rises from his seat, Ruby and Patch, whom I thought were in deep sleep, automatically stand up too, ready to follow him.
So, what drives you in life? I pose a final question as we conclude our chat.
“The dogs. Definitely,” answers Salehin, conviction lacing his voice as he throws his companions a fatherly look. I guess that saying, ‘a dog is a man’s best friend’, rings true for Salehin. And that being the case, he really does have many best friends.
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