By Jane Schmucker
A dog in the dentist’s office.
Not so long ago, that would have sounded like the title of a children’s story—and a silly one at that.
Dental offices are supposed to be sterile; no place for an animal.
But somewhere along the line, a few dentists did bring their dogs to work. In some instances, just because they were trying to housebreak their pets and there was no one at home all day.
To their surprise, most patients loved the canines.
Playing with a dog took a patient’s mind off of the needle to come. Holding the dog reduced the tension and anxiety that so many feel at the very mention of the word dentist. The dog quickly became an adjunct team member, as well as mascot and marketing symbol.
Smudge to the Rescue
One of the most recent pooches to join a dental office is Smudge at Steliotes Dental Spa near Pittsburgh in McMurray, PA. Dr. Ted Steliotes wanted a dog for himself and then decided it would be great if he could take Smudge to work.
He picked out a French bulldog pup with a rare print, primarily because the breed doesn’t grow large and is easily trained. Smudge wears a therapy dog vest with a handle on it when he’s at the office. And amazingly, he seems to realize when it’s time to work – such as when he must calmly be held by a patient about to get an injection – and when he can play and run around.
“At 5 o’clock he turns back into a regular puppy,” Dr. Steliotes says. “He knows it organically.”
Like many dental office dogs, Smudge appears in numerous pictures on the office website, Facebook page, and on other social media. But he turned into an overnight star because one of Steliotes’ patients is a Pittsburgh television anchor. The anchor was in the office late last fall, and Smudge’s story was filmed soon thereafter. It aired on Christmas Eve.
“The overwhelming response was more than I could have hoped for,” Dr. Steliotes says.
Teddy the Labradoodle
In Ann Arbor, MI, Tree Town Pediatric Dentistry got a cute-as-a-button, miniature Australian Labradoodle named Teddy late last year.
Like Dr. Steliotes, Dr. Stephanie Shin in Ann Arbor wanted a dog for herself. But she felt badly at the thought of leaving a dog at home all day while she was at work. Dr. Shin had a pediatric dentist friend in Hawaii who has a dog of the same breed and brings it to work every day. And thus, Dr. Shin’s young patients get to revel in Teddy’s adorableness with her.
The Tree Town practice already had a fairy house with a little door and a train as treats for its young patients. (“When this is over, you can see the train!”) But Teddy does so much more at the practice where tears are usually at least an every-other-hour occurrence, says Emily Pedersen, a dental hygienist in the practice, who is also an adjunct clinical lecturer at the University of Michigan.
Benefiting most are the children who have been to dentists before and hated it, says Ms. Pedersen, as she explains how some patients even started a procedure at another practice that wasn’t completed because they became too upset.
“They’re anxious and worked up before they even set foot through the door,” Ms. Pedersen says.
But if a staff member asks these agitated children if they like dogs and shows them Teddy, that can change their whole train of thought.
“It brings them this sense of comfort and familiarity,” Ms. Pedersen says.
Of course, not every patient likes dogs.
A ‘Lap’ Dog
Just the other day, a family of three children visited the office. The oldest, an 8-year-old girl, wanted to pet Teddy but warned the staff that her younger brothers don’t like dogs. However, even the apprehensive 6-year-old, after watching his sister with Teddy through a glass door, wanted to get close to the dog by the end of his appointment.
The hardest thing about having Teddy at the office, Ms. Pedersen says, is trying to be mindful at all times that not everyone likes dogs and making sure that Teddy doesn’t interact with patients who have dog allergies or fears.
In Fishers, IN, north of Indianapolis, Fishers Pediatric Dentistry advertises a “PAWsitive dental experience” with Pearly, also a miniature Australian Labradoodle.
A sign the office informs families when Pearly is on duty and off duty, Dentistry Today reported in a feature story about the dog in 2016. Patients can visit with her before and after invasive procedures. For noninvasive work such as exams, cleanings, and restorations, Pearly will sit within reach of the patient or on the patient’s lap.
In northern Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C., Golden Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics features two dogs, Lexa and Flossie.
Flossie is a Cavachon, a hybrid of a Bichon Frise and King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, and owned by Dr. Alan Golden. Cavachons are hypoallergenic and don’t shed.
Flossie has been going to the office alongside Dr. Golden since she was eight weeks old in 2012.
Dr. Golden's partner, Dr. Roger Hennigh, was so impressed by Flossie that he adopted Flossie's half-sister, Lexa.
Many of the practices that have dogs buy puppies from a breeder and work extensively with trainers.
Aviva Vincent, a veterinary social work teacher at Case Western Reserve University in northern Ohio and at the University of Tennessee online, has studied how dogs help kids relax in the dental chair, down to the point of measuring the stress hormones in saliva samples collected from patients.
Liability and Bacteria Levels
She was involved in research in 2017 and 2018 that used eight different dogs, including a 95-pound German shepherd, that were all part of Pet Pals, a pet therapy program that uses trained volunteers and their adult dogs to visit adults and children in Cleveland’s University Hospitals.
Even so, there are numerous issues that dental clinics need to think about before bringing in animals, says Mary Grace Ash, a clinical lecturer and coordinator in the dental hygiene division at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Liability and bacteria levels are just starters. Might a dog distract the staff? Would it be another obstacle for patients and dentists alike to step over?
The University of Michigan does not allow animals in its dental clinics where students practice. But it does bring pups into a student commons area during exams week as a way to help deal with the pressure of those stressful days.
At the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, Dr. Ward Massey and Dr. Janet Yellowitz are interested in dogs in dentistry and are hoping to get a grant to expand their knowledge, even though a first request was denied.
A dog in the office, they say, can often help create an immediate bond between patients and staff. Seeing the dog leads many patients to start talking about their own pets, often pulling out a phone to show staff members a picture of their pet. That seems like a small thing. But in this profession, it can be huge.
“People come in and tell you to your face, ‘I hate dentists,’” Dr. Yellowitz says. “We don’t have a very good reputation out there. … We’re trying to change that paradigm.”
Author: Contributing writer Jane Schmucker is a veteran journalist who has covered health and business topics. Now freelancing, she reported and edited for more than 22 years at The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). She has also worked on the rewrite desk for USA Today in Arlington, VA.
Also by Jane Schmucker:
- Being a Good Mother and Being a Good Dentist: Are the Two Roles Compatible?
- OSU College of Dentistry’s ‘OHIO Project’ is a Model of Service Learning at Its Best
- Practice Management: Do You Recommend That Your Patients Drive a Mercedes or a Ford (Toothbrush, That Is)?
- After Hours: Working with Patients Who’ll Bite Your Head Off. Literally.
- Practice Management: When a Simple, ‘How Are You,’ Unleashes a Tale of Woe
- Practice Management: Refer a new patient for a chance to win a car. Is there a limit?