Getting a (Therapy) Dog in the Fight Against Dental Phobia

Therapy Dog helping ease a dental patient

After experiencing the worst of the worst in childhood dental trauma -- everything from not being given local anesthetic to having teeth drilled with ancient, belt-driven equipment -- I decided there must be a better way. That’s how this dental-phobic child, teen and young adult became a dentist. But it wasn’t my DDS degree from Georgetown University School of Dental Medicine, or even today’s latest industry offerings that gave me the tools I needed to turn things around, it was a dog. Or, more specifically, two dogs.

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Early on I learned that my experiences as a dental patient growing up were sadly very common. Childhood traumas, fear of the unknown and horror stories from others (literally from the time of ancient peoples) had created a culture of fear. But I knew that did not have to be the case. So I made it my personal goal, as did the entire field of dentistry, to change that culture. Amazing advances in technology, training, anesthetics and injection techniques, along with empathetic dental professionals have dramatically reduced discomfort with dental treatment. As a profession, dentistry has employed patient sedation, aromatherapy, hypnosis, noise-cancelling headphones, music and movies -- just to name a few -- to make the patient experience less stressful. And still… dental anxiety and treatment avoidance persists.

Enter Bella and Mia, my two best furry friends. Earlier this year, I decided to introduce my dogs to my dental practice. My husband and I had already trained, registered and volunteered with them in our community as therapy dog teams. They were small, hypoallergenic and loved volunteering with us. We had seen firsthand the huge impact they had on both patients we visited in the hospital and developmentally disabled children we visited in the local middle school. So I thought, let’s see how they do at the dental practice. We were able to find insurance to bring them to work and we had already trained them to respect the “sterile field” in the hospital setting.

Immediately, Bella and Mia were a huge hit in the office! They had the desired effect of calming and relaxing anxious patients. In fact, during the several months of their time at the office, we have seen initial blood pressure readings consistently drop 10 to 15 points, just five minutes after introducing a therapy dog to our patients in both the waiting area and treatment rooms. Patients are even requesting the comfort of our dogs for future appointments, and are not only scheduling long overdue treatment needs but actually looking forward to their next visits. The response to our beloved pets by our patients has been overwhelming. Patients are referring others to our practice who they know are fearful of dental treatment, and some are even traveling great distances for care.

We were, of course, thrilled with the response of our anxious patients to our dogs. What was a little more surprising, however, was the response of our staff and the vast majority of our non-fearful patients. By and large they all love Bella and Mia as much as we do – and even ask for them by name. And the best part, these two lovable critters were able to help me achieve my greatest professional goal, taking the fear out of going to the dentist. Recently a patient told me, “You know, the dogs make it so much better. I am actually looking forward to coming back!” I’d say that’s a pretty impressive trick for a human, much less a couple of cute dogs.


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