Chilean ther­apy-dog pro­gram aids kids dur­ing den­tist vis­its


Diego Ros­ales was so ter­ri­fied dur­ing his den­tal ap­point­ments when he was four that he kept bit­ing his den­tist.

Today, the nine-year-old is far calmer, soothed by the pres­ence of “Zucca,” a black Labrador that helps chil­dren like him with autism face one of their worst fears.

A visit to the den­tist can be daunt­ing for any child, but it’s es­pe­cially so for many with autism. They can be up­set by the lights in their faces or fright­ened by the noises of the in­stru­ments. Some have to be se­dated.

Ther­apy dogs have been used in many coun­tries to calm autis­tic chil­dren and aid peo­ple with nu­mer­ous other con­di­tions. Raul Varela be­gan the prac­tice in Chile af­ter notic­ing that his autis­tic child’s so­cial in­ter­ac­tions im­proved af­ter spend­ing time with the fam­ily’s black Labrador.

Varela quit his job and got cer­ti­fied by Spain-based Bo­calan as a ther­apy dog trainer for chil­dren with autism.

He started a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called Junto a Ti (“Next to You”) that spe­cial­izes in vis­its to the den­tist for autis­tic chil­dren. It uses six dogs, all fe­male, be­cause the or­ga­niz­ers say they are more docile. And the dogs get spe­cial­ized train­ing.

“Zucca had al­ready been trained to be around chil­dren with autism, but tak­ing her to the den­tist was dif­fer­ent,” Varela said. “She needed to be able to re­sist the scream­ing, the noise from the drill and to stay still in the lap of the chil­dren, even when they pull their hair or their ears.”

So far, the dogs have aided about 50 chil­dren vis­it­ing a sin­gle univer­sity-run den­tal clinic on the south­ern edge of Chile’s cap­i­tal. The clinic pays the equiv­a­lent of $67 for a ses­sion with a dog, though its charge for a child’s visit varies, de­pend­ing on the fam­ily’s eco­nomic level.

On a re­cent day, Diego sat in the den­tist’s chair with Zucca on his lap. There was no bit­ing and no scream­ing this time. In­stead, Diego con­tin­ued to pet Zucca long af­ter the den­tist had plucked out one of his teeth, and he smiled when he got to take the tooth home in­side a tiny box for the tooth fairy.


Nine-year-old Diego Ros­ales, who has autism, in­ter­acts with a ther­apy dog be­fore his den­tal ap­point­ment in San­ti­ago, Chile.

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