PETALING JAYA: A curious crowd of more than 800 people gathered Sunday morning for the first-ever "I Want To Touch A Dog" event at the One Utama shopping complex.
Also there at Central Park within the complex were the four-legged "stars" - furry and cuddly with wagging tails.
The event, aimed at dispelling negative perception of dogs particularly among Muslims, started out as a small get-together for those curious about dogs. It turned out to be one of the largest impromptu events, organised in just three weeks.
Half of those present were Muslims, many wearing yellow - the colour that the organiser had designated for those who wanted to touch a dog, with orange for those who only came to watch the animals.
Volunteers and pet owners wore red. The colour codes allowed those present to observe their personal boundaries and to get to know the dogs at their own comfort level.
Present at the event was 23-year-old housewife Fatimah - someone you would not have expected to attend as she was clad in a full black veil with only her eyes visible.
However, Fatimah, a mother of two, moved about confidently among the dogs.
"I came here to learn more about interacting with dogs, about 'samak' and 'sertu' cleansing. I've never done such a thing before," she said with a smile.
The 'pettable' dogs included a purebred sleek-haired Afghan hound, lion-maned Chow Chows, rescue dogs and lovable mutts. Despite their differing appearance, all the dogs were thoroughly vetted by the organisers.
The event started with a religious talk by Ustaz Mohd Iqbal Parjin, 33, a religious teacher and Masters student at UTM's Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (Casis).
Dog handlers then explained to the crowd on how to approach the animals.
Lessons on the Islamic way to cleanse (sertu or samak) after touching dogs were also provided by volunteer 'sertu coaches' who showed the steps - first to wash once with earth and a further six times with clean water.
While touching a dog may be 'taboo' for Muslims, the man behind the event, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, decided to take an unorthodox way to overcome his own fear of dogs.
"This is just a baby step for us. I don't know whether people will now understand not to throw stones at dogs but we want people to know that if they are not knowledgeable or are curious about things, they should just ask.
"If we ask nicely, people will respond," said Syed Azmi, a registered pharmacist.
"I didn't expect to see so many Malays today. I didn't expect many people to come in yellow or orange. I didn't expect the kids. Having the kids here is the best thing ever. We are doing this for them," added Syed Azmi.
The event received a surge of support after people talked about it online.
Nur Aliyah Mohd Nasir, seven, did not miss out on the fun and was seen cuddling a small Chihuahua.
"I am very happy. I touched many dogs and carried them. My favourite is the Huskies," said Aliyah, who touched at least 12 dogs at the park.
Student Wan Mohd Syafiq, 19, heard about the event via Facebook and decided to get up-close with some new canine buddies.
"I'm super-duper happy. Before this I wasn't very comfortable around dogs but today I feel a lot better. I learned how to pet a dog, how not to pet it and how to cleanse myself after touching a dog. I will definitely come again if there is another event!" he shared.
Pet shop owner Aaron Choo, 25, said the event was a huge success.
"I'm very happy to see Muslims so eager to learn about and touch the dogs. I really do hope events such as these continue and I'm very happy to participate again," he said.
Veterinary assistant Aishah Abdul Rahman, 24, said: "I feel this is a very good event. Even in the clinic where I work, there are some who would scream in fright when they see dogs.
"This is a good opportunity to educate people in a safe environment, especially since all the dogs seem to have good temperament."
Vijay, 38, came to the park early with his four-year-old black Labrador, Blade, to make new friends.
"I heard about the event on Facebook and felt it would be a good opportunity to socialise Blade as well - he loves kids. It's good to see Malaysians unite and be together for a positive cause," said Vijay, who also called for the event to be held more regularly.
For Ustaz Mohd Iqbal, the event was important to dispel negative stereotypes about dogs. But even for him, the event was groundbreaking.
"This is the first time I've given a religious talk to many non-Muslims.
"I've always wanted to try giving dawah (preaching) through an urban approach. It's a wonderful experience," he said.
Uztaz Mohd Iqbal explained that while Muslims have to be aware when dealing with dogs - they have to be in an environment of cleanliness when conducting religious rites - this does not mean dogs should be treated as hina (treated with contempt).
"Care has to be taken when it comes to religious duties.
"However, even though the fur and saliva of dogs are considered to be unclean, we should not look down on dogs.
"Do not harm them and do not throw things at them. In fact, we should not even take the stand that we as human beings are better than dogs. What is most important is in the heart," he said.
"I feel happy to see that all those who came, came with good and open hearts," he said.