By Genni Burkhart
For some, it’s fear of needles. For others, it’s the sound of the drill, the smell of the dental operatory, or an overall anticipation of pain and discomfort. As a result, nearly 40% of Americans fear the dentist, leading some to delay or even skip dental care altogether.
Undoubtedly, animals play a significant role in the human experience. With over 65.1 million U.S. households owning a dog, it’s not surprising that animal-assisted therapy is gaining popularity in dental offices nationwide. In this article, we'll discuss how therapy dogs can reduce anxiety in dental settings and boost the moods of patients and staff while improving case acceptance and overall patient satisfaction.
The History of Dogs as Therapy
Belgium was the first society to use therapy dogs in the Middle Ages, where pets were rehabilitated together with patients, effectively helping each other recover.
In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale observed that pets could reduce anxiety and stress in psychiatric patients. In response, a wave of informal experiments investigating the calming effects of animals on humans were conducted. Researchers soon realized that animals had a therapeutic benefit for anxious patients.
In 1953, psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson discovered, by accident, that children with mental illness could benefit from animal interaction. Having his dog, Jingles, present during therapy sessions, Dr. Levinson noticed that withdrawn children began to open up by talking to the dog. Recognizing this, he later wrote his dissertation, "A Comparative Study of Certain Homeless and Unattached Domiciled Men," and authored several articles on the topic, including “The dog as a co-therapist.”
Initially ridiculed for his ideals, Dr. Levinson soon led this research and “coined” the term “pet therapy.”
There's Good News
At the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, Lucy, a golden retriever formally trained with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, roams the clinic looking for patients to soothe and comfort during dental cleaning and procedures.
Owned by retired oral surgeon Rich O’Day, who now teaches part-time at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, O’Day explains his understanding of what patients feel when seeing dentists, and most often, it’s fear. During his weekly rotations, Lucy comes along and visits Children’s Hospital Colorado and the Denver International Airport.
As reported by the CU Anschutz news, O’Day says, “Most people are hesitant to pet Lucy because they think she’s a service dog. But once you explain to them that she’s a therapy dog, the first thing you see is a big smile because they want to pet her.”
Some CU Dental clinic patients said Lucy makes them want to go to the dentist more often.
Scientific studies show various health benefits associated with therapy dogs, including reducing stress levels, alleviating depression, and improving patients' overall health in the hospital setting.
At Mighty Smiles Dentistry in Las Vegas, NV, Dr. Campbell, and Dr. Vanna decided to add Frankie, an emotional support dog, to their team. Dr. Campbell explains to MDlinx.com, "It really helps calm the kids down having a fun little puppy running around. They no longer focus on the scary parts of what to expect and become more focused on the ‘fun’ aspect of the dental office.”
Frankie is such a success that patients aren’t the only ones seeing an advantage of adding a furry companion to the team. The staff is benefitting as well, and the results are all-around positive. However, they advise having a trained therapy pet (not a family pet) best suited for a “working” environment.
In 2022, The Washington Post featured an article about an 11-year-old boy, Levi, and Charlotte Pediatric Dentistry's "snuggle-ready" therapy dog, Atkins. (click on this link for the heart-melting photo of Levi and Atkins in the dental chair.).
Levi was anxious about returning to the dentist for an extraction, but his hygienist, Barb Kucera, had a surprise: A companion to sit with him through the appointment. Atkins reduced Levi’s stress, and the dentist could sedate Levi, numb his mouth, and remove two of Levi’s teeth easily and without fear or trauma.
On a Legal Note
As dentists across the country discover the benefits of bringing therapy dogs into their practice, they've learned it can be done without additional cost to the patient. Patients often welcome this as an added service unless there is a fear of dogs or an allergy. Therefore, it is recommended to ask patients before interactions with a therapy dog or inform them before their visit.
Even with the influx of “dental dogs,” there’s a lack of regulations on this issue. In 2021, North Carolina regulators became the first to approve a ruling allowing only “certified facility dogs” in dental exam rooms and dental practices, with the dog’s handler also requiring certification.
However, for most states, there isn’t much that prevents dental professionals from bringing untrained animals into their practice and calling them therapy animals, creating a possible risk for patients and an area of litigation for the practice.
That’s why it’s best to take Dr. Rich O’Day’s lead and use only trained and experienced therapy dogs prepared for a working environment as dental dogs. For more information, visit the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
Throughout history, dogs have been our loyal companions, often written about in stories and heralded as heroes in legend and real life. Of course, they'd be there for us humans at times of greatest fear and anxiety, including the dentist. There's even scientific research that shows therapy animals provide tremendous benefits to anxious patients, including:
- Lowering anxiety and increased relaxation.
- Providing comfort during times of need.
- Helping to break the ice and increase mental stimulation
- Raises serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and overall wellness.
- Diminishes pain.
- Aids in stabilizing blood pressure, slowing breathing, and lowering heart rate.
- Acts as a mood booster and distraction from stressful situations.
For many patients, especially in a pediatric setting, therapy dogs are a welcome addition to a dental visit. When the staff is prepared, well-informed, and trained, dental practices can see positive results from adding a "dogtor" to their team.
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Author: With over 13 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer, Genni Burkhart's career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides in Northern Colorado, where she works as the Editor in Chief of the Incisor at DOCS Education.