09/15/2014 04:40 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Dogs in Asia: Doctors Not Dinner

In a continent where dogs are often regarded as food, a change in attitude is palpable as the science behind the healing powers of canine therapy is being embraced by animal lovers and doctors alike.

"Friends or food..." has long been a slogan of those campaigning against eating dog. It should now read "friends and therapists."

Here in Asia, Animals Asia's Dr. Dog program has warmed the hearts of approximately 25,000 people each year, since it first began in 1991, with the very nervous initial proviso of one dog, for one hour, in the garden of a children's hospital in Hong Kong. Now operating in another three mainland Chinese cities (Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu), plus Taiwan, Malaysia, India and Japan, Dr. Dog promotes animal welfare through people welfare, providing comfort, and not a small amount of happiness, to those in homes for the elderly, disabled, orphanages and schools.

In the latest study of May and June this year, 34 children at the Heep Hong Society Fu Cheong Centre in Hong Kong were visited every Friday by six Dr. Dogs as part of a program designed to help them overcome their fear of animals and develop their social skills. These children with developmental disabilities such as autism and Down Syndrome learned how to interact in confidence with the dogs in a fairly new area of research called Animal Assisted Play Therapy (AAPT).

The conclusion was remarkable -- showing significant increases in the children's verbal communication, compared with those who played with inanimate objects, such as dolls. Just as profoundly, the research showed that the children lost their initial fear of dogs too. One parent was moved to comment: "My daughter was afraid of dogs before. However, she isn't afraid of the dogs now after the visit by the Dr. Dogs. She keeps telling me she wants to meet them again."

Across the world, dogs risk, and lose, their lives to help ours. In China they have been revered for their assistance with emergency services, in landslides, earthquakes and floods, and in protecting the Birds Nest Stadium, participants and audience during the much-celebrated Beijing Olympic Games. Over 100 welfare groups and millions across the country are now calling for them to be recognized as our friends not food -- particularly now that the truth is coming to light regarding the "black industry" of the dog trade, exposing that the majority on the plate, were snatched from a caring family home.

Caged and transported for days on the back of trucks without access to water and food, diseased and dying en-masse, the meat of these stolen, poisoned, and sick animals now sold into the food chain and inevitably putting the health and lives of consumers at risk.

Now, brave people are apprehending the trucks, working with the police, exposing fake licenses, inadequate quarantine inspection certificates, and other fraudulent practices, and encouraging the authorities to confiscate the dogs into their care. Collar wearing -- and obviously homed -- dogs are often re-united with their grateful families, and the industry increasingly exposed, for the horrors at its roots.

Just this month, 2,400 such dogs were saved and, just this month too, 17 men pleaded guilty to "trading in toxic dog meat" at a court in Zhejiang. Using cyanide and succinylcholine to poison the dogs, they then sold the contaminated meat to restaurants and unsuspecting consumers in the region.

As many groups confirm, this is just the tip of the iceberg and now is the time to expose this dirty industry and call for an outright ban on the consumption of dogs in China.

Perhaps too, through highlighting the plight of meat dogs -- and celebrating the good that this species brings to humankind in China and across the world -- we can better help other animals in the food industry; those with equal intelligence and propensity to suffer, as our very best friends.