Dental therapy dogs: the new superheroes at the dentist

By Shurna Decou

Golden Pediatric Dentistry in Woodsbridge, Virginia has a new patient. A little girl is sitting in the deck-play area, frightened of dental treatment. So Dr. Alan Golden whistles for Flossie the dental therapy dog, and a small dog hops up on the seat next to the anxious child.

“Do you want to give Flossie a cookie?” says Dr. Golden.

“I do!” says the little girl.

The little girl stretches out her hand with a treat. Flossie twirls as she stands, then takes the cookie without touching the girl’s fingers. Soon, the little girl is petting Flossie, completely engaged with the dog, her anxiety forgotten.

Since Flossie started calming anxious patients in 2012, she has never missed a day of work.

Dental Therapy dogs are a growing trend

While still relatively uncommon, a growing number of dental providers are using therapy dogs in their practices to help alleviate anxiety in patients of all ages and are achieving excellent results. Some dentists bring in their dogs every day; others bring them on selected days and appointments. Therapy dog handlers include dentists, hygienists, other dental staff and volunteers. Regulations can vary by state, but many allow therapy dogs to be in the treatment room while others primarily greet patients in the waiting room.

Dynamic duo Kyia and Tia

In Vancouver, Washington, volunteer handler Cathy Tramaglini brings in one of her two therapy dogs, Kyi or Tia, into two different dental offices, Deluna Kids Dental and Adventure Dental, for two hours at a time. Both Kyi and Tia work wonders with children, who would otherwise have to undergo anesthesia. Tramaglini recalls one 3-year-old child who needed a lot of work done including a crown and a filling. Kyi laid on the child’s abdomen during her treatment. When the child squirmed, Kyi could sense it and snuggled closer.

“You could see this little girl relax like ice cream melting, and she was able to get through the treatment,” says Tramaglini.

Petting releases endorphins

Research shows that interaction with a gentle pet can significantly improve physical and mental health. Petting an animal produces a relaxation response, releasing endorphins that have a calming effect. Moreover, petting can also reduce the amount of medication that some people need.

For patients who have had a bad dental experience in their past, a therapy dog can make all the difference in whether they seek regular dental treatment.

Considerations for a therapy dog in a dental practice

Make sure the staff is on board

The staff needs to be on the same page. If one employee is afraid of or doesn’t like dogs, it could turn into a human resource issue. Also, if the primary handler isn’t available to take the dog out for a bathroom break, another employee should be willing to step in.

Office space

While a large office isn’t an absolute, dentists should consider designating a separate area specific for the therapy dog in order to accommodate patients who are afraid or don’t feel comfortable around dogs. Also, the therapy dog should feel the dental office is like a second home.

Breed and temperament

When choosing an animal for training and certification, some experts advise hypo or low allergenic breeds known for a calm temperament. Dr. Golden advises against using a rescue pet as a therapy dog, specifically, because their histories are unknown and they need to be trusted with children. Pet Partners recommends choosing a dog with an obedient nature, a soothing disposition and enjoys interacting with people.

Training and certification

A strong foundation in obedience instruction is essential for a therapy dog as well as intermittent refresher training. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers is a great resource in finding a trainer. Pet Partners also recommends handlers get training in reading a dog’s body language. A number of organizations offer certification, training and related resources as a therapy or facility dog including Therapy Dog International, Paws4People and Alliance for Therapy Dogs.

State regulations

Dentists should check with their state for specific regulations for therapy or facility dogs in a dental practice.

Last thoughts

While a significant amount of time, effort and expense, are needed to get a therapy dog properly trained and certified, for many dentists, the benefits have exceeded their expectations. Having a therapy dog at the dental office has enhanced their professional fulfillment and boosted staff morale. Then there are the returning patients, who only want to schedule appointments when the therapy dog is on duty. 

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About Unum Group

Unum Group provides a broad portfolio of financial protection benefits and services through the workplace, and is the leading provider of disability income protection worldwide. Through its Unum US, Unum UK, Unum Poland, and Colonial Life businesses, the company provides disability, life, accident, critical illness, dental and vision benefits that protect millions of working people and their families. Unum also provides leave and absence management services that streamline the leave experience for employers and employees and stop-loss coverage to help self-insured employers protect against medical costs. Unum reported revenues of $13.2 billion in 2020 and paid $7.6 billion in benefits.


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