"Each dog has a story."
Saturday’s family activity was to troop to The Lagoon at Quezon Hall at the University of the Philippines to witness the presentation of the first-phase “graduates” of the training for the UPD Sagip K9 unit. I brought my son, my daughter, my daughter’s partner, and their one-year-old, slightly obese and much-too-pampered Maltese, Cloud. It would be Cloud’s first time to see that many other dogs in the same place – he was mostly reared in ECQ times. He had on his black-and-white bow tie for the occasion. The rest of us were just hyped at spending a weekend morning amid trees and open spaces.
Twelve teams—a team is composed of a dog and a handler—were presented to the crowd. The dogs, a mix of former stray and roaming animals and pets of residents and staff, had just completed their months-long training on Basics of Canine Behavior Modification and Foundations of Search Work. They were ready to receive their certificates and regale their visitors with a demonstration of the basic skills—agility, sit/stay, tent search, and open field search—they had acquired.
Since January, interrupted only by the re-imposition of Enhanced Community Quarantine in March, the teams trained in various buildings in the university. They trained under Coach Ronald “Onayd” Lumbao, a prominent dog behaviorist.
The training was made possible by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Community Affairs. The vice chancellor, Dr. Aleli Bawagan, was also there and gamely volunteered to climb a tree and see if the dogs could find her during the open field search.
Professor Khrysta Imperial Rara of the College of Mass Communication told each dog’s story at the beginning of the program. The stories were as varied as they were interesting. Amore, for instance, had been abandoned by her owners, chained to a gate, lived under sun and rain, and subsisted on morsels of food thrown by the neighbors. As a result, Amore became a fearful dog and would often shake when approached by others. Now, no more. “The training has transformed her,” said Rara.
Arya used to be shy and withdrawn, but with the help of her parents Anton and Leigh Espino, now she is sociable and is one of the few who can go around off-leash. Bar is taken care of by Professor Christian Arranz of the Department of Mining, Metallurgy and Materials engineering. In pre-pandemic times, he brought Bar to class during exams. Bar is an emotional support dog and students would take a break from their test to pet him. Since the professor is also a budding chef, Bar is always his official taster. Meanwhile, Brown is cared for by three generations of women and is used to the rigors of a one-to-two-hour walk around the campus every day.
Dagz survived a hit-and-run incident while she was on full-term pregnancy. With her hips broken, she managed to crawl on her stomach to safety. She gave birth screaming in excruciating pain. Dagz had formed such a bond with her handler, Rolando Laga, that when he was not able to spend time with her as usual, she collapsed and became so pale and cold. Emotional trauma said the vet.
General roams Romulo Hall by day and keeps watch over his handler at night. Harry, named for the prince, is personable and a natural member of the Emotional Support Animal. Kotton showed up at Masscom one day, mangy and dirty and full of fleas. Professor Rara took him to the vet...now he is clean, handsome, and friendly. Students at the College, when there were still face-to-face classes, used to pet him. He likes air-conditioned places and parking areas.
Krypto is a long-distance runner, and since his handler is a resident of the campus, they diligently trained even at the height of the lockdown.
Maroon, named for the university color, is a small but brave dog who likes balls and belly rubs and is good at searching in small, tight spaces. Nano – named for “unano” because of his size – used to be very noisy, barking with a shrill voice. He was once beaten with a hard object and had to be operated on: His bones were piercing the muscles. He has recovered, and the training has done him a lot of good – even tempering his excitability.
Red Fox looks fierce but is actually a kind and tender dog who is part of the Emotional Support Animal Program of the campus. He was adopted but was returned after three days because he was difficult to feed—small wonder since he liked McDo fried chicken and nothing else.
Certificates were handed out to the teams, by no less than former UP Chancellor Dr. Michael Tan and VC Bawagan, for their progress these past five months. The dogs are getting ready to begin Phase 2 of the training. It’s amazing at how they were able to move past their sometimes harrowing history, respond to training, bond with others, and unleash their potential to be useful for emotional support and emergency response during natural disasters.
Then again, credit goes to the tireless trainers led by Professor Rara and Coach Lumbao as well as the OVCCA. They did not have to go this extra mile – we’re in the middle of a pandemic and everybody is just trying to get through from one day to the next. Still, they did, with so much love, commitment, and painstaking work. Our Cloud was dressed just right: The SAGIP K9 graduation was a black-tie event, indeed. The community is grateful.