SANTIAGO : Pepe, a Chilean "therapist" with long blonde fur, and Chimu, his feisty black-and-white female canine companion, stroll the hallways of a pediatric hospital in the capital Santiago, licking hands and offering their ears and bellies for caressing.
The partners are part of a team of gregarious canines helping to relieve stress at the Exequiel Gonzalez Cortes hospital in San Miguel, an urban facility that had been for months overwhelmed by cases of coronavirus and other emergency surgeries.
"When one enters (the hospital) with dogs, they all greet you and their expressions change," said Nicole Faust, a dog trainer with Fundacion Tregua, a non-governmental group that works in canine therapy.
Chile was particularly hard hit early during the coronavirus pandemic, as a soaring caseload pushed hospitals to the point of collapse. But cases have plummeted in recent weeks, thanks to a fast-paced vaccine drive, giving health workers in the South American nation much needed respite.
Teresa Nilo, a hospital technician who suffered from COVID, said the dogs helped to change her attitude.
"Having the dogs by our side gives us peace of mind," she said. "You feel you are in a more welcoming place than in a hospital between four walls."
Animal-assisted therapy can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems, according to the U.S.-based Mayo Clinic.
Children at the hospital in particular love the dogs, said their parents and the staff.
Rodrigo Alvarez, an auto mechanic whose son recently had eye surgery at the hospital, said his boy had benefited from the therapy.
"With children that are very sick, this helps them escape the stress of the hospital, of what they are living," he said.
(Reporting by Jorge Vega; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Richard Chang)