Empathy is a rare skill, acquired by facing the ups and downs of life, and in the process, developed naturally as a career.

Shreeya Ghag, our next pathbreaker, works at the Animal Angels Foundation, for mental health wellbeing of children and adults alike by using trained therapy animals as a part of the treatment process.

Shreeya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from Interview Portal about dealing with challenges during her growing up years, being around animals, and the desire to help others with an empathetic and a non-judgemental ear that steered her towards Animal Assisted Psychology.

For students, the global atmosphere in the last several months has shown us the real value of relationships and empathy. Dont fritter away your natural abilities in the din of traditional careers !

Shreeya, tell us about your background?

I have lived and grown up in the city of Mumbai. I’ve grown up in a typical Maharashtrian middle-class family with my parents, younger brother and grandparents. We had a pet dog, Sunny who passed away shortly after I was born. Ever since I was a child, I have always wanted a dog at home, but couldn’t as my grandparents’ health was getting weaker. I have studied in an English medium State Board school. I wasn’t very fond of school. I have had a phase of truancy (running away and bunking school) during my later school days because I felt like I didn’t fit in. There were days when my parents would constantly nag me to do better and learn more, or get ahead of my group. I was also bullied in school and I struggled with confidence issues. So, I don’t have a lot of happy school memories. It also didn’t help that my peers and siblings were academically inclined. I didn’t have any special talents like my other friends. In a nutshell, I was a shy, average girl who didn’t sing or dance or get into academic debates. My only hobby was reading and playing with stray dogs or cats. Books took me to places far, far away and I found myself lost in their realms for hours at end. Similarly, being around animals always made me feel peaceful.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I distinctly remember a time in my life, when somewhere in my 10th standard, we had a career guidance workshop in our school. I hadn’t given my career any thought at all till that point. To add to that, I scored below average in most subjects in my prelims. At this particular workshop though, there were a lot of experts from various fields who had come to give us a brief idea of their respective jobs. Most of my classmates had crowded the science and engineering counters. The relatively empty counters were fine arts, event management, hospitality and nursing, and psychology. I picked up a few leaflets from the psychology counter to read. Later when I got home and as I got to reading the leaflets, something clicked! I suddenly knew what I wanted to do! Studying how our brain works and understanding the various struggles a human mind can go through was something I immediately related. I could be someone who helps a person going through difficult times in their lives and make their lives better or make them feel supported and loved. So I decided that I wanted to study psychology and one day have my practice! At that point, I didn’t know what else was in store for me.

After having made the choice to be a psychologist, I decided to pursue it with all my heart. I completed my bachelors in psychology and then my masters in applied psychology with the specialization of clinical psychology. I loved getting to know the subject better and I knew this was where I belonged. My grades were decent but what helped me the most, were the insights that my professors shared from their journeys. Case discussions, supervised therapy practices and having open-ended debates are still amongst my most treasured memories of post-graduation studies. 

A parallel journey started along with my graduation, that was of studying the German language. I hated it when I first began but soon developed a liking for it and decided to pursue it alongside college. I am glad I did because I’ve much to be grateful for!

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I wanted to move away from the general trend of engineering and commerce. Languages, arts and culture were some of my interests. I had considered becoming a Veterinarian, as I always felt drawn to Zoology and Animals. But for that, I’d have to choose Science as my major discipline which would include math, physics and chemistry too. I decided against it and chose psychology instead. In my family there are some who work in the field of medicine but none in the field of psychology. My parents have always been very supportive of my career choice. Thankfully for me, my parents never questioned me or asked me to change my preferences. I believe this helped me in making confident choices throughout my career. One of my first exposures to psychology was through a book called “Tell me your dreams” by Sidney Sheldon. The book talks about multiple personality disorder and I was fascinated by the topic. Later, as a part of my undergraduate project, I got to interview and interact with some psychologists where I got my first real picture of what the field looks like in India. It was quite unlike what the book described. I realized the non-glamorous aspect of the job like low payment, bad infrastructure, little or no awareness and the stigma around mental health. It hit me like a bullet at that time, but I felt even more emotionally connected to the field from that point onward. I wanted to make a change and be a part of the field more than ever!

Tell us about your career path

Thanks to some amazing professors in my last year of graduation and my post-graduation, my foundations were strong. However, I still didn’t know how to go about working in the field. During my final year of masters, we had the opportunity to work at various hospitals, to understand aspects of the job. We got to spend a long time working alongside professionals at mental health clinics, psychiatric facilities, psychiatric departments in hospitals as well as outpatient facilities. These are memories and learnings that will stay with me all my life. It was also at this time that I realized my interest was more for therapy and counselling than testing. I also wanted to develop those skills further.

After I finished my post-graduation, I started applying for jobs. But nothing interesting came my way, so I decided to apply for further studies instead. I started preparing for M.Phil. entrance exams and that’s when the next big thing happened. I appeared for a lot of exams and interviews for M.Phil. and even got shortlisted in some good universities, two of those were Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). I couldnt believe my luck when I was selected among the top 5 candidates for a PhD at TIFR. I was over the moon. I took it up and looked forward to learning from the best of the best! Simultaneously, I also joined an online platform called Yourdost to provide online therapy for people in need. I met similar minded professionals on this platform which enriched the experience even more. TIFR was a new and exciting place. The atmosphere was all about learning and getting better. I was having fun. I met some extraordinary minds when I was there and just being with them in the same room has taught me so much. However, soon enough I began to realize that it was not the place for me. I started falling short and motivation started waning. Sitting behind a computer and digging through research papers just didn’t feel interesting! PhD was something that I wasn’t ready for at such a point in my career. After a short six months, I decided to leave my PhD studies. From there, my journey as a therapist began taking proper shape.

How did you get your first break?

I didn’t have a job but I had a clear idea of what I was looking for – working in the field as a therapist. I came across a job opening for Animal-assisted therapy. Animal-assisted therapy is a therapy modality that involves a mental health professional who uses an animal to assist him/her in his/her professional scope. It was something that I had read about in college but hadn’t gotten a chance to pursue. Animal-assisted therapy offered the perfect opportunity to mix my two passions, psychology and love for animals. I had already looked it up as a field before and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect! It was all coming along. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: A major challenge for me was the financial aspect of my career. We had always been told that a psychologist earns well much later in his/her career after gaining experience and expertise. Having said that, the money prospects for a fresh post-graduate are poor. Although I had my parents to support me, it was still a challenge to become independent early on in my career. For me, my way of dealing with the financial crisis was to do more than one job simultaneously. Since I knew another language, I could use it to my advantage. I started offering my services as a German language translator and language trainer during weekends to earn extra money.

Challenge 2: Another roadblock was practical knowledge. As a part of our education system, we have always had more emphasis on theoretical knowledge than practical applications. This made me feel under-confident about my skills as a therapist when I started. It also made me take lesser risks. However, I realize now that the skills come eventually through practice. It also made me understand that growing in any field is a process and requires extra efforts and patience. I’ve made mistakes at work and have had opportunities to rectify those mistakes too. I have my moments too. I feel under-confident and overwhelmed, but my colleagues and my boss have always given me the scope to improve and the help required when required, which helped me grow as a therapist and does to this day.

Tell us about your work currently

Now, I have been working with the Animal Angels Foundation for some years and I have only grown from my experience. My colleagues and the people I have met along the way have boosted my knowledge of the field and given me the much-needed satisfaction that I was looking for.

What problems do you solve?

At AAF we work with various centres such as schools, non-profit organizations, hospitals and corporate workplaces for mental health wellbeing. Our role is to motivate or help children and adults alike achieve their goals by using trained therapy animals as a part of the treatment process. We help clients understand and deal with emotional or behavioural issues, we also help them improve their skills like cognitive skills, social skills, physical skills or verbal skills. AAT can be used across all age groups and with all populations.

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

When I started as a fresher with AAF we were given a six-month training before we began work. This helped us hone and develop the skills that we need every day to do therapy. The most important aspect of any therapy is being in sync with the beliefs that are intricate to the therapy. In the case of AAT, this belief is that animals can help in human wellbeing. It’s also the motto that we follow at work. We truly believe that our therapy dogs help make the world a better place and help us be better humans. They bring about a positive change and a willingness to improve in our clients as well.

The main skills that are required as an Animal-assisted therapist include (but are not limited to) knowledge of the therapy, knowledge of animal behaviour, formal training in handling therapy animals, a firm knowledge of ethical requirements as well as mastery of basic counselling skills. Basic counselling skills include building rapport with clients, practising active listening, focusing and attending, having a strong sense of empathy and ethics as well as good communication skills. 

Apart from these skills, a good AAT therapist would also have skills like an effective judgement of the client and therapy animal’s responses (what turn can the therapy take; how is the client responding to the therapy animal; signs of fatigue and stress in the therapy animal etc), being able to think spontaneously and adapt his/her therapy to new situations, the ability to model good animal care and welfare, ability to promote interactions between the therapy animal and the client as well as be able to bring it into the therapeutic process.

What’s a typical day like?

For me, every day at work is a new adventure. But the one constant thing is that a therapy dog would be waiting for me at my destination. We work at various centres throughout the day and each day typically has 2 or 3 centre visits. Once we reach our centers with our therapy dogs, we let the dog relax and get comfortable. After that, we begin our therapy sessions. Here, depending on the clients, we conduct activities along with the therapy dog to help them reach particular goals set for the clients. After the end of the sessions, we move to our next session which is in another part of the city with a different therapy dog.

What is it you love about this job? 

Although my workday involves a lot of travelling and can be physically draining at times, what keeps me going and is the highlight of my workday is being able to meet our wonderful therapy dogs every day. Just being able to actively bring about a change in the lives of people with their assistance is what I love about my work. I rarely have morning blues because a happy tail and lots of cuddles are waiting for me every day.

How does your work benefit society? 

We come across examples very often at work that affirms our faith in this therapy and that we are doing the right thing. Through my work, I’ve had the opportunity to work with children with special needs, with children of commercial sex-workers, adults suffering from mental health issues as well as tiny tots. I’ve also worked alongside our furry therapists at corporate offices. One major benefit that I’ve observed is that being around animals and interacting with them creates an atmosphere of nurturance and care. Dogs provide unconditional acceptance regardless of who you are and where you come from. This helps people look at themselves and the people around them in a different light. We as humans are bound to make judgements and it often creates barriers in our interaction with the world. But looking at a dog who loves you no matter what makes us challenge those judgements. Another benefit that AAT provides from a therapy point of view is the motivation for therapy. Many clients are unwilling to open up or to pursue therapy because of fear or stigma. Having a therapy animal in the therapy room is an effective icebreaker with withdrawn and uncooperative clients. Such clients tend to see the therapist as more friendly if there is a therapy pet present in the room. This helps the therapist make a breakthrough. It also increases the chances of a person returning to therapy and trying to resolve his/her issues which is the goal of any therapy.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There are many memorable experiences that I’ve had at work. But one such experience that stands out is when I got a chance to work with children of commercial sex-workers. These children come from an environment of abuse, uncertainty and unhealthy relationship patterns. From a very young age, they are exposed to aggression, abusive language and sometimes even traumatic experiences like a physical assault. Our therapy animals help create a non-threatening and healthy environment for these kids where they can experience safe touch and healthy relationships with animals and humans alike. They get to meet, hug and spend quality time with our therapy dogs who accept them no matter what. The way their faces light up when we go there with therapy dogs, Lexi or Tesla will remain etched on my heart and mind. It reaffirms my motivation to keep working in this field.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice for students would be to follow their hearts. We are living in times where there is far more acceptance and opportunities that you can get no matter what field you choose, but you have got to trust your instinct and do what you feel the most connected to! It may not work out in the first go, but keep at it! If you feel passionate about something, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot and to pursue it to the best of your abilities. 

If you are not sure what you are passionate about, look at your options, talk to people from various fields, try to get as much knowledge as possible and keep searching for your fire! Many career guidance centres can help you weigh your options and give you a better idea of what’s best suited for you. Don’t hesitate to visit these centres and to ask for assistance. It’s okay to be confused and unsure but know that there is help available if you feel stuck.

Future Plans?

I don’t have any immediate plans but I have a clear idea of what I want to do. Animal-assisted therapy will always be a big part of my therapy process but I am also looking to grow in other ways, learning new therapy modalities as well. I think at the end of the day it’s about what you want to achieve, and there can be more than one way of achieving it. The journey so far as been full of learning and good memories. I wish to keep exploring and growing as a therapist so that I can help individuals become better versions of themselves.

At the same time, I want to pursue my love for languages and literature too. Maybe I’ll also try learning a new language or pursuing a masters in English literature along the way. For me now, it’s going to be all about the balancing act.