The Gurgaon-based startup conducts pet therapy sessions for individuals and corporates to help them de-stress.
Animesh Khatiyar, studying law at Symbiosis Law School, Noida was an ardent dog lover. To his great joy, his college had brought in two Labradors for the students to play with.
And, slowly, Animesh noticed that the dogs brought about a sea change at the college. Students who felt homesick started spending more time with the dogs on the campus, there was less absenteeism among the students, and the general atmosphere was more cheerful and friendly.
After passing out, he decided to launch Fur Ball Story in December 2016, taking a cue from his observations. It began as a pet therapy platform using canines but has since added services like home boarding and a dog’s cafe, and is planning to venture into products.
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) is a growing field in India that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems such as mental health disorders, heart disease, or even cancer. Fur Ball Story uses both AAT and AAA with clients.
So far the team has conducted therapy sessions with Nagarro, MakeMyTrip and Sequoia Capital, and served over 5,000 individual clients. It charges between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 for a single therapy session, depending on the scope.
Currently bootstrapped, the company is expecting good business from its cafe located on Golf Course Road, Gurgaon as well. They plan to hold an event at Cinepolis in Delhi.
The early days and challenges
Animesh, 24, realised that with the never-ending rat race causing high levels of stress in employees, there was a crucial need for fun and unique activities that could help people gain peace and become calmer. His research turned up plenty of instances in the West where people engaged trained canines as therapists.
He discussed the idea of starting something similar with two friends—law student Shristi Sharma, 21, and textile designer Arushi Dixit, 24. Both loved the idea and the trio soon started looking for dog therapy trainers.
However, the search was harder than they expected. Shristi says, “We were able to find only two-three professional trainers in Delhi.”
After inception, the team realised choosing the right therapy dog is difficult. Moreover, setting up the business was not cheap. The founders gathered support from friends and family who loaned them the amount for therapy training. The cost of each training session was quite steep, with the therapy dogs required to undergo 48 sessions, in three phases. Each session cost Rs 2,000. Explains Shristi,
“Choosing the right dog was difficult too because one has to look into the dog’s lineage. At least two-three generations of the dog’s parents must be champions of obedient training.”
This is done so that the dog doesn't undergo any episode of aggression, as it could lead to further complications. Shristi says, “As we are catering to critical patients like the ones suffering from depression or autism and the like, we make sure that the therapist is equally capable of lending a helping hand and a wagging tail.”
The team currently works with six full-time employees, and six dogs, one of which, a Shih Tzu, is a companion dog and not trained for therapies.
The biggest challenge Fur Ball has encountered so far is finding a good handler for the dogs. “As the therapy dogs are trained to follow the instructions of the handler, it is no small commitment of 12-14 years (average life of a dog) to be the handler of therapy dogs. However, it is fairly an unorthodox idea in India and people will take time to digest the fact that dogs and puppies can also be therapists when trained.”
Apart from therapy sessions, Fur Ball is trying to encourage people to adopt dogs to reduce animal cruelty and to develop a more compassionate community.
Market and growth
While a nascent market in India, in the US there is a big focus on AAT and AAA. A study conducted by University of British, Columbia suggests that interactions with dogs can help students combat homesickness, and even reduce dropout rates.
Fur Ball Story had a turnover of over Rs 3 lakh in its first quarter, 80 percent of which was from therapy sessions. They have invested over Rs 10 lakh in the past seven months and expect to grow at an exponential rate with the cafe and herbal pet products in the pipeline.
In the Indian context platforms like Tailspin and Heads Up for Tails are focused on pet grooming. As far as AAT and AAA are concerned, there is Animal Angels, which focuses on therapy with dogs for school children.
Fur Ball Story, in collaboration with Mumbai international airport, will provide therapy sessions during weekends for the benefit of travellers who are stressed and need to rejuvenate.
“The sessions are focused on helping travellers recover from stress and make sure it doesn't lead to further mental health diseases. Our sessions will be conducted at the airport every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” says Shristi.