Interview: “Animal-assisted therapy lowers stress levels”

SANTIAGO, Chile: After receiving an increase in requests for dental treatments for children with disabilities, the Universidad de los Andes, Santiago, Chile, decided to introduce animal-assisted therapy into their practice. Dental Tribune Online spoke with Dr. Andrea Ormeño, Director of the Care of Patients with Disability Diploma at the Faculty of Dentistry, to learn how this new treatment method, which adopts the service of specially trained dogs, is helping to improve the dental hygiene of some of their younger patients.


Helping to improve patient experience in the practice has always been important, but when did you decide to introduce this method as a means to help with treating children?
About five years ago, we decided to try animal-assisted therapy (AAT), mainly owing to the increased demand for dental treatment for kids with disabilities. Since this style of work is orientated to the children and their families in a regular dental practice, it helps promote family interest in coming back for regular checkups, which ultimately optimizes patient care and experience.

Which patients have you had the most success with using this method, and how has it improved their experience?
The most success we have seen has been with child patients with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. Each treatment is also enriched with the participation of a multidisciplinary team that takes care of the patient in a comprehensive manner. We have seen that AAT improves social interaction and communication and lowers stress levels in the patient. It has also transformed a visit to the dentist from a traumatic experience into something patients look forward to.

What is the usual procedure when using AAT, and in what way has it been most helpful to your dentists?
Firstly, we ask the child’s family if they would be interested in trying the therapy. If they agree, we then ask the patient, before having an informed consent form signed by the parent or caregiver. From there, the patient goes to a bonding space where the dog, the trainer and the dentist get to know each other. This is to evaluate the interaction between all parties involved, and is done on a case-by-case basis, before making a decision about the possibility of moving to AAT in the dentist’s chair. The therapy has proved to be very valuable because of the emotional connection the patient has with the animal, thus calming him or her down and in turn allowing the dentist to perform his or her work in a far less stressful environment.

Owing to the sterilization requirements for a dental practice, how do things function when using the trained dog to help with treatments, and is there a continual evaluation of the animal’s performance?
Sanitary protocols require that each animal be checked by a vet, receive all the necessary vaccinations and be deemed completely healthy. Before the dog steps into the practice, he or she is given a hygiene bath and a general checkup, and during a treatment, the trainer is the only person authorized to handle the animal. All the dogs that participate in the practice were selected especially for this job and are continuously evaluated on how they perform during the different therapies in which they assist.

How much does AAT cost?
The hourly cost is about $75 and that includes the trainer and the dog. All the other costs are as normal, as we still use a regular chair and instruments for the treatment itself.

What has the reaction been from parents, and would you recommend to other dentists to introduce this method into their own practices?
The mother of a boy with autism spectrum disorder said she thought her son would never be able to stay calm enough during a visit to the dentist. The first time they sought dental care it was complete chaos. Now, however, after a couple of AAT sessions, her son is able to go into the practice and sit through an entire treatment. Because of such results, the therapy has provided a real option for treating kids with disabilities, and since we have all the equipment and professional staff available to use it in the practice safely, I would recommend it.

Rany Lim