A Modern Day Fairy Tale: Therapy Dogs Help Children With Autism Cope With Dentist Visits

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Therapy Dogs Help Children With Autism Cope With Dentist Visits



Therapy dogs have been used for many years, but we're still discovering new ways these dogs can help their human companions. Case in point: Zucca the black lab, a very good dog who is helping young children with disabilities get over their fear of the dentist.

Diego Rosales, now nine years old, was petrified of the dentist when he was four. So petrified, in fact, that he would consistently bite the fingers of his dentist. But after being calmed by Zucca, a therapy dog that works with children with autism, he was able to confront and conquer his fear.

Even though virtually all adults (99.7%) believe a healthy smile is socially important, according to a survey from the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentists, many children and adults suffer from intense dentist dread. For a variety of reasons, the average U.S. adult goes three years in between dentist appointments, far longer than the recommended six months. While financial limits stop many people from making appointments, dental care can also be especially difficult for children with disabilities. Fortunately, the recent use of therapy dogs in dentist's offices is opening new doors for children with autism.

Dental and doctor appointments are frightening for many children, but they can be particularly scary and overstimulating to children with autism. The bright lights, loud noises, and unfamiliar sensations at the dentist can be so overwhelming that some children even have to be sedated. On top of that, missed doctor's appointments cost the U.S. healthcare system an estimated $150 billion every year, which begs the question: would children benefit from the use of therapy dogs in other healthcare settings?

Tooth decay may be 20 times more common than diabetes and five times more common than childhood asthma, but all children deserve equal access to healthcare. That's why dogs like Zucca can be vitally important for children with disabilities to receive necessary healthcare services. Emergency rooms, which see up to 110 million visits each year, are just one of the other healthcare settings where therapy dogs are occasionally brought to soothe patients.

In a 2012 study published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, researchers surveyed both patients and hospital staff after bringing a therapy dog (TD) into the ER. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

"Ninety-three percent of patients and 95% of staff agreed that TDs should visit EDs; 87.8% of patients and 92% of staff approved of TDs for both adult and pediatric patients. Fewer than 5% of either patients or staff were afraid of the TDs. Fewer than 10% of patients and staff thought the TDs posed a sanitary risk or interfered with staff work."

Raul Varela, a therapy dog trainer from Chile, started his own practice upon witnessing his son with autism's drastic improvement in behavior after playing with the family's black lab. He subsequently quit his job and got his certification from Bocalan Institute of Human and Animal Behavior in Chile to train therapy dogs to help children with autism. He then began his very own non-profit organization called Junto a Ti ("Next to You").

“Zucca had already been trained to be around children with autism, but taking her to the dentist was different,” Varela told the Associated Press. “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.”
Ultimately, Diego is just one of the countless children with disabilities who has benefited from the use of a therapy dog like Zucca. His most recent visit to the dentist didn't involve yelling or biting, thanks to Zucca sitting on his lap. Instead, it was a simple tooth removal, and he even got to bring the tooth home with him to put under his pillow for the tooth fairy.

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