Sister and Sugar Can Help Children Triumph Over Obstacles

Years ago, we learned about the benefits a service dog can have on any child. Since Medplex aims to provide optimal dental health care to infants, children, and adolescents in a hospitable atmosphere that focuses on the overall well-being of the child with the understanding that God designs all children with a specific purpose in mind, we knew that adding a level of comfort to ease anxiety for each and every child needed to be an option in our office. In the story below, which is an expert from, service animals are celebrated for how they can make a difference in a child’s life. Read the full story by Beth Arky here.


Animals Help Children Overcome Challenges

No child relishes a trip to the dentist. But for one like Caroline, an autistic 7-year-old who has sensory processing issues, even a routine visit can be a traumatic event. Two years ago, “all of the different sounds and smells, along with the closeness of the people, really threw her over the edge,” recalls her mother, Jaime. Caroline was so frightened when her chair was reclined that she “jumped over the back of it and ran out to the parking lot,” Jaime says. “We tried to bring her back in but she was so upset that the dentist couldn’t do anything.”

When the Coral Gables, Florida, mom told Caroline’s occupational therapist, Willow Rossi, about the episode, Rossi had a thought: When she worked with Caroline she included her black Lab Tippy, who is what’s called a facility dog. Tippy seemed to help Caroline stay calm, so why not have her accompany the girl to her next appointment? Because Tippy is also a certified service dog, she has full access to public places including stores, buses and planes.

It made perfect sense to Jaime: “Overall, Caroline was happier and calmer on the days that she saw Willow and Tippy,” she said. Caroline didn’t scream, hit or run away as she sometimes did with other therapists. At first, her dentist was reluctant, but after a bit of urging from a determined mom, Tippy was invited to come along.

It worked. “Caroline willingly walked Tippy into the waiting room and then the exam room,” Rossi says. “Tippy lay with her on the chair throughout the exam. Although Caroline was still anxious, she did it!”

Facility dogs help with therapy

A therapist like Rossi uses a facility dog—often described as a “therapy dog,” which is actually an umbrella term—as a modality, or tool, to help a child attain her goals. Tippy serves as a huge motivator, making therapy both fun and rewarding for children with a wide range of challenges, including Down syndrome, learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism. She even coaxes older children who may be bored by the repetition of therapy to attend sessions.

For instance, if Rossi is working on fine motor skills, she might have a child brush Tippy’s teeth or coat, or use tongs to feed her. The “bug game” involves picking yarn or pom pom “fleas” off the patient pup’s back.

Another fine motor task that also increases core (trunk) strength involves sit-ups, with the child reaching back over his head to pick up and hand Tippy a treat each time he rolls down to the floor. Tippy also loves to hide in the ball pit, encouraging kids to dig down to find her. They don’t have to know they’re getting tactile input and increased body awareness; it just adds to the fun.

If Rossi wants to work on sequencing, following directions and memory, she’ll have the child carry out a sequence of commands for the retriever. In the next session, she’ll see if the child can remember them, and then add more.

Facility dogs are just one of myriad animals being used by an increasing number of clinicians and therapists to help kids with developmental, learning and behavioral challenges. Dogs have been trained for many different roles, from helping reluctant readers, who feel more comfortable reading aloud to a patient, nonjudgmental animal, to providing solace to those who have been through a disaster. Some courts are using dogs trained to comfort abused children facing the ordeal of testifying—and to give them a positive memory to have of the experience…

….While there is little research to back up the therapeutic claims of these programs, the use of animals in therapy goes back to the beginning of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud allowed his two chows, Lun and Jo-Fi, to sit in on his sessions, admitting with “complete sincerity that he often depended on Jo-Fi provide him with an assessment of his patient’s current mental status.”

Many parents don’t need to be convinced. Take Caroline, the girl who needed OT Rossi’s facility dog to get through her dental exam. Soon after, the girl received her own service dog, another black Lab named Zumi, to assist with socialization and calming. At first Zumi assumed Tippy’s place in the chair. But no longer. These days, Caroline “can go to the dentist with or without Zumi!” Jaime says. She has no doubt who to credit for this breakthrough: a wet-nosed, tail-wagging best friend named Tippy.

Medplex Pediatric Dentistry serves as a top rated pediatric dentist for Alabaster, Birmingham, Hoover, Helena, and Pelham, AL.