San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Dog-assisted therapy helps kids, elderly

Four-year-old José lived in his own world without speaking or relating to others. So his first word, “oso” (bear), was a surprise. He wasn’t talking about a real bear, though he was close; he was saying the name of a 140-pound, long-haired, black Newfoundland dog that visited the Child Neuropsychiatry School in the northeastern San José suburb of Moravia, and he was wrapped up in the giant dog’s fur.

Oso is one of 15 dogs that, along with their owners, make up the Costa Rican Pet-Assisted Therapy Association (Acoteama), a group that visits schools and homes for the elderly to offer therapy for children and adults.

The association was founded less than two years ago but has already found a welcome in the San José metropolitan area.

“We’ve been to so many places that it’s hard to name them all,” said Grettel Sánchez, founder of Acoteama.

Sánchez gave an example of dog therapy for children with cerebral palsy, a disability resulting from damage to the brain before, during or shortly after birth.

“The children lie down with Oso with their heads on his stomach area and their hands buried in the fur between his legs,” she said. “That helps them ‘warm up,’ so they are more responsive to their physical therapy.”

Dogs are aptly called “man’s best friend,” as they play an extensive role in helping people. The National Police’s canine crew

Dog Therapy 1

Acoteama “therapists” include Oso the Newfoundland dog.

Mitzi Stark

discovers hidden drugs and helps reduce crime by helping to patrol areas. The fire department has rescue dogs to locate people and bodies during natural disasters such as landslides and earthquakes. Service dogs guide their blind owners and those with other physical impairments. Now, Acoteama is showing that dogs can help in physical therapy and in bringing cheer to those who are wheelchair-bound.

A group of Acoteama volunteers and their dogs are regular Monday-morning visitors at the Carlos María Ulloa home for the aged in the northeastern suburb of Guadalupe. On a recent Monday, Sánchez and her husband, Jorge Fallas, arrived with Oso and Peewee, a border collie. Anthony Rubidez, a teenager who lives near the home, walked over with Odi, a black cocker spaniel mix, and Esther Hernández drove in from Cartago with Koby, a bundle of gray curls. Although he’s blind, Koby responds to commands and tugs on his leash.

“Not everyone is able to come to all events. A weekend event brings out more volunteers and dogs,” Sánchez said.

The home’s 250 residents were happy to see both canine and human visitors. Although the buildings are well-equipped and attractive, and the staff caring and cheerful, life in a wheelchair can be dull. The weekly Acoteama visit provides a diversion, even for those who can no longer toss a ball or cavort with a dog. Some eagerly pet the animals and run their hands through their fur. For others, it’s enough to talk to the dogs or just watch them. Teresita, who is blind, knows Oso by touch and loves having someone to talk to. And for Kuka, who’s lived in institutions all her life, the animals are like the pets she never had.

Peewee, the energetic border collie, chases balls and runs through the hallways but never creates problems. Oso marches along at Sánchez’s side, stopping with her to greet people who have become friends from the weekly visits. Rubidez walks the spirited Odi along the passages, and Hernández hands Koby to those who want to cuddle the little dog or hold him in their laps.

All dogs and owners receive training before going out to visit. Barking, jumping on people and making messes won’t do. Dogs must be able to respond to basic commands and be agreeable with people and other dogs. Human volunteers need training too, and Acoteama receives technical help from a Spanish dog-assisted therapy association, whose members visit Costa Rica for joint sessions.

The Carlos María Ulloa home is where this project began. Fallas, a retired firefighter, visited the center to work out plans for evacuating the building in case of emergency and to offer other safety suggestions. Sánchez accompanied him on several visits and saw that many of the residents, especially those wheelchair-bound, had nothing to do. She asked the staff if she could bring along a dog to entertain them. It worked out fine, and the project got under way.

“We get requests for visits,” Sánchez said. “We enjoy it, and we give back to the community. We welcome requests for visits to schools, agencies, homes for the aged or other situations.”

Requests may be made through Acoteama’s website at or by calling Sánchez at 2229-2717 or 8318-7793. The association also welcomes new volunteers and is seeking companies or organizations to sponsor its work.

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