Dr. Sunday Agbonika is pioneering Animal-Assisted Interventions in Nigeria with a specific goal of helping children with Autism.

In this 38th episode of Therapy Dog Talk, I spoke with Dr. Sunday Agbonika, a Veterinary Surgeon, dog trainer, and 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, about his journey to bringing Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) to his country, Nigeria, and what his goals are in doing so. Dr. Sunday first discovered the power of AAI in watching a short documentary by Nathan Selove. In this video, Nathan tells his own story of how Sylvia, his Assistance Dog, helped him to thrive with Autism. For Dr. Sunday, this was personal, as he had a nephew whom he believed to be similar to Nathan. While his nephew had passed away two years prior to finding the video, Dr. Sunday wanted to help other Nigerian children with special needs.

One of the biggest challenges that Dr. Sunday encountered is the stigma surrounding children with special need in Nigeria. In order to access the children who he believed could benefit from AAI, Dr. Sunday ended up pursuing opportunities for Animal Assisted Therapy in special education centers as opposed to directly introducing the idea of Service Animals to individual families. He now works with multiple species including a turtle, rabbits, and two dogs—Tish, a crowd favorite, and Bishop who both live for the love they receive while working with children.

While Dr. Sunday, a dog lover since birth, loves to see the joy and happiness on the faces of the children that they work with through his organization, Dogalov, what also fuels him is the feedback that they receive from teachers and caregivers. He shares the story of two boys who went from a lack of motivation to coming alive when they met the dogs. Dr. Sunday’s therapy dogs were so impactful for these boys that the teachers shared their newfound motivation with their parents and they both were able to get their own dogs at home to continue to improve their lives outside of the center.

Dr. Sunday’s efforts in Nigeria led him to become a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow where he was placed in LeHigh University where he was able to get involved in Equi-librium, an equine therapy facility for children with special needs, as well as to meet the international AAI community and connect with mentors around the world including Dr. Elizabeth Omerod who was instrumental to introducing the human-animal bond in the UK. These experiences led to shaping his work back home in Nigeria as well as to founding the first ever intra-African AAI conference.

If you’re ready to learn more about Dr. Sunday’s AAI work in Nigeria, let’s dive in:

In this episode, we discuss …

  • How Dr. Sunday discovered animal-assisted interventions through a short documentary.
  • Which animals Dr. Sunday partners with and what his dogs Tish and Bishop love about being Therapy Dogs.
  • How Dr. Sunday is bringing together his community and international leaders in AAI.

Key moments you won’t want to miss:

  • [01:05] Dr. Sunday takes us back to the beginning of his journey in Animal-Assisted Interventions through discovering a documentary by Nathan Selove about his Autism Service Dog.
  • [04:22] Dr. Sunday shares the challenges of bringing Animal-Assisted Interventions to Nigeria due to stigma around children with special needs which limited access in finding those who they wanted to reach.
  • [05:58] As locating the children through their families proved to be difficult due to stigma, Dr. Sunday decided to reach the children through special needs centers lending towards a focus on Animal Assisted Therapy to work with many children as opposed to Service Dogs focused on one child as was the case with Nathan.
  • [08:14] We learn a bit about the animals that Dr. Sunday works with including a turtle, two rabbits, crowd favorite Tish—a long-coat Chihuahua who loves to be loved, and Bishop—a dog who lives for attention and belly rubs.  
  • [09:25] It has been surprising for Dr. Sunday that the International community was so interested to see Animal-Assisted Interventions grow around the world and to support the work that he is doing in Nigeria.
  • [10:36] Dr. Sunday loves the look of joy and happiness on the faces of the children that they work with as well as hearing the feedback from their teachers and caregivers about the impact that the animals are making.
  • [12:58] Dr. Sunday reflects on how he’s been a dog person since birth and shares the story of Skipper, his childhood German Shepherd who he remembers as being more than a pet and the center of his childhood.
  • [13:52] We learn about the Mandela Wahington Fellowship and how they look for change-making African youths each year and place them in universities matched to their work as well as connecting them with community.
  • [14:36] In 2019, Dr. Sunday was placed in LeHigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he was able to participate in Animal Assisted Therapy through Equi-librium an equine center for children with special needs.
  • [14:22] Dr. Sunday reflects on how the Mandela Washington Fellowship exposed him to the international community which played a significant role in shaping the work that they do in Nigeria.
  • [17:30] In 2021, Dr. Sunday organized the first ever intra-African animal assisted interventions conference based on the recommendation of his mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Ormerod, to bring together all the different groups that he was trying to work with to share knowledge, information, and feedback around the human-animal bond.
  • [20:47] The 2nd Annual conference on Animal Assisted Interventions and Assistance Animals 2022 is scheduled for August 3-4 including someone from Green Chimneys—one of the first organizations in the world to practice AAI—as well as Nathan Selove, create of the documentary who inspired the AAI journey for Dr. Sunday.
  • [21:51] If you are interested in pioneering AAI in your area, Dr. Sunday’s advice is to take a step and to keep taking whatever steps you can take as well as invest in learning about AAI standard practices and terminology.

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I do. Give it a listen and let me know which part you found the most helpful!

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