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Child patient plays with therapy dogs

At a children's hospital in Santiago there is a flurry of excitement over a delegation of special visitors: a four-legged quartet has arrived to offer some reprieve from sickness and pain with their wagging tails and soulful eyes.

Pipa, Morron, Pepe and Chimu are regular visitors to the Exequiel Gonzalez Pediatrics Hospital in the Chilean capital, where they bring as much joy to children awaiting surgery as to their caregivers, many emotionally and physically drained by months battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sporting hospital visitor's tags with their names and mugshots, the motley crew -- two big dogs and two small -- make their way from bed to bed, sharing cuddles and sitting patiently through the often inept attempts of small hands at brushing their coats.

For a moment, the little ones forget their pain, their bandages, and the incessant beeping of hospital electronics.

In one bed, a girl - her face bandaged but beaming with joy - brushes then hugs Morron, a black Labrador.

In the corridor a girl in a bright pink tracksuit gleefully walks two of the dogs on leashes -- or rather, they walk her.

"To see how a child's face lights up is what gives this meaning," said canine therapist Fernanda Romero of the Tregua Foundation, the group that organizes the visits.

"It is a near-magical experience," she told AFP.

- 'Helps reduce anxiety' -

The foundation organizes hospital visits to calm young patients before and after surgery.

"We have noticed in more than 90 percent of the children that canine therapy helps to reduce anxiety," pediatric surgeon Yolanda Poulin told AFP.

"A child who is crying, fearful and hungry because they have had to fast for several hours -- the therapy helps them."

The dogs -- mainly Labradors and Golden Retrievers, animals known for their calm demeanor -- are trained from an early age to handle the stressful hospital environment with its bright lights and constant machine noises.

During the pandemic the dogs have also been brought in to calm the hospital's doctors, nurses and technicians, exhausted after months of coronavirus duty.

The dogs have been shown to relieve stress among the adults as well as kids, said Nicole Faust, one of the canine therapists.

"Many say: 'How nice that the dog was here, I needed it, I was so stressed, I just had a super complicated patient, I just went through a hard experience'," she said.

"It has helped them a lot to forget work for a while," said Faust, concerned for the mental health of medical personnel in the frontline of the battle against a pandemic that has claimed some 35,000 lives in Chile.