An entourage surrounds him as he leaps along the halls of Ateneo. Girls giggle and stare, wanting to play.

His name is Bubu. He is Ateneo Loyola Schools’ Office of Guidance and Counseling’s (LSOGC) in‑house therapy dog who has improved the mental health of students. Psychological tests measuring anxiety, depression, and stress levels back‑up this claim.

Janine Sy, LSOGC’s researcher, who doubles as Bubu’s manager, laughs that Bubu is even more famous than the guidance center itself. “Bubu is why we currently have 1.3 thousand likes on Facebook—many more students come here because they want to play with him.”

Bubu is part of Communitails, a startup that combines mental health and dogs in one paw‑mazing social enterprise. It was founded in 2014 by four medical doctors, a veterinarian and a biology professor who all share a love for animals and believe in the healing power of the human‑animal bond. They’re the organization that made it possible to have therapy dogs in LSOGC, and the Ateneo community at large.

Human‑animal bond

“Animal‑assisted activities” is the umbrella term that covers animal‑assisted interventions (simply playing in a group setting), animal‑assisted education (being educated about said activities or raising awareness, headed by a teacher), and animal‑assisted therapy (addressing clear treatment goals in a therapy setting).

Human‑animal bond has been seen to have healing potential—animals won’t judge nor interrupt you, making it easier for you to relax and open up. The bond may also foster a sense of responsibility (taking care of the animal) and benefit physical health (bringing the animal to regular walks). Therapy animals can be assigned to people with all sorts of conditions, including but not limited to dementia, cancer, chronic pain and developmental disorders.

Prior to Communitails’s efforts, animal‑assisted activities were virtually nonexistent in the country, save for the Dr. Dog outreach program of the Philippine Animal Welfare Society. Carla Azucena, Communitails President and Bubu’s human, recalls, “We looked at them and actually attended one of their sessions so we could see what exactly goes on, and that’s our local data—everything else, we had to look abroad.”

The lack of local resources did not stop them from seeking the information they needed elsewhere and fine‑tuning it to the specific needs of each client. Azucena points out that they had to look at different models of animal therapy organizations, and obtaining their certification from the nonprofit Pet Partners in the process. Pet Partners is a non‑government organization in the US that certifies teams and people for animal‑assisted therapy. “They don’t have a branch of Pet Partners here yet, and so we found it apt to make our own organization here and get people certified.”


Making it work

Communitails is for‑stock and for‑profit, which, Azucena explains that it was a decision based on their prior experiences with volunteering. She says, “We already know how NGOs run in the Philippines, we admire what they do, but we just don’t know how it’s sustainable and how much we can do with such limited resources. Once we get into that system, we wouldn’t be able to get anything into the business, and so we also looked for different models abroad.”

Azucena and the rest of the board then assembled a team of part‑time professionals to help with their sales, marketing, legal and financial matters. They also started to train volunteers with the necessary competencies to become handlers in the future.

As for the dogs, they need to pass a behavioral assessment to become therapy dogs.

For each client, a team consists of one therapy dog, at least two certified handlers from Communitails, staff from the institution, and volunteers. Azucena says it’s done this way because one of the premises of animal‑assisted therapy is that you can’t leave the dog on its own. “What if the handler goes to the bathroom? The staff from the institution is also important for crowd control, logistics, and because [they] know where to go and how to go about the session.”

Their clients so far have been institutions, particularly schools and hospitals—a deliberate move, according to Azucena. “We targeted it that way, rather than individuals, because we wanted to create a community. So individuals will have to go through the proper channels first, the mental health professionals, in this case.” Communitails tailor‑makes each program according to the needs of the client, asking, interviewing and observing first before developing how each session would go. In the case of the LSOGC, Azucena says that they wanted an in‑house dog, and they are currently taking steps to ease Bubu and two other dogs into that particular role. “Other clients might not necessarily want a program, they might just want a visit once or twice.”

Azucena says that they have been actively pushing for animal‑assisted therapy because “it’s been in America, the UK and even Singapore. We are such an animal‑loving nation: 8 people is to 1 dog in SEA, so that means we have the most number of dogs. It’s so ingrained in our culture to have pets. I think we’re ready for it and right for it.”

As for the LSOGC, their main goal is community‑building, and it looks like it’s working: an entire class has opted for a photo op with Bubu. But Azucena reminds us of the bigger picture: “We’re not just bringing in the dogs for them to play with. There’s a certain stigma with mental health right? With Bubu’s help, it’s no longer that hard to go to the guidance office.”


Heart for animals

Maria Nancy Copaway, a recent volunteer, decided to join because of how it aligns with her beliefs: “I find it a really good means to promote a stronger human‑animal bond.” Copaway mentions that volunteers are required to attend training seminars, as well as observe sessions.

It’s worth noting that Communitails was founded over a genuine love for animals. Azucena shares, “we all started with being animal lovers, so we all had our own pet love story with our respective animals. Having a dog, having a pet in the family was very foundational in my development as a person and that love didn’t wane over college and med school.” This has afforded them a real concern for the welfare of the therapy dogs, that translate into how they conduct their sessions.

Azucena is well aware of the limitations of Bubu: he can get overwhelmed by a crowd, he needs to stop and drink water every so often, and likes having a cooling mat and some bananas—his favorite treat—to relax. They also make sure not to overwork the dogs by scheduling all the sessions.

“Bubu has only two visits per month,” Azucena said. “We limited it that way for his own welfare.” She also shared that Bubu once fell ill and couldn’t do the visits, which prompted them to assemble backup teams to meet the demands, especially during times when students are especially stressed.

Apart from Bubu, the LSOGC will soon have Doodle, the Guidance Director’s dog, and Yogurt, an undergraduate’s dog.

Communitails is proof that you can mix business with passion, while addressing the needs of society in a novel way. Azucena says that they have been expanding because they already have their proof of concept—they believe that the niche they built is sustainable, while addressing mental health issues, a cause that has been gaining increased awareness in the country.