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Dental therapy dogs

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Can man’s best friend help your practice?

Dogs have been used in many situations to bring comfort and a sense of tranquility to people experiencing stress.

They have responded when lives are turned upside down following natural disasters, such as the 2011 tornado in Joplin, MO, and they are on the scene after man-made tragedies too, like the recent mass shooting in Orlando, FL.In each case, man’s four-legged furry friends were summoned to provide succor.

And now dogs might be finding their way into the dental profession.

The University of Michigan School of Dentistry this year called on therapy dogs to help students facing the stress of final exams and graduation. And at least one dental office in suburban Chicago has a dog visit on a regular basis.

“The act of petting a dog can lower your blood pressure and increase your endorphins, so there is a positive physical component to a visit,” according to Lynne Ryan, a dental hygienist at Pediatric Dentistry of Northbrook, who is also a volunteer handler with Lutheran Church Charities’ Comfort Dog Ministry.

Ms. Ryan, who has worked with CDS member dentist Thomas Resnik at the dental office for about 24 years, knew JoJo did well at school visits, so she had the idea about a year ago to bring her into the office.JoJo now comes in once a month. Patients schedule appointments when JoJo is available and the practice makes sure there are no allergy issues or fear of dogs. The rooms also get a thorough cleaning after each visit.

“Everything has been positive,” Ms. Ryan said of the visits.

Ms. Ryan said it has been mostly new patients who seek JoJo’s attention.

“It’s a comfort just having her in the room,” Ms. Ryan said of JoJo’s work. But some patients want the dog to sit on their lap or be in contact with them.

And sometimes, it is not the patient who needs the reassuring, Ms. Ryan noted.

The dog can size up a situation amazingly well, she said. For instance, a child with autism came into the office one time while JoJo was on duty.

Ms. Ryan said JoJo knew who in the room really needed comforting the most and went right to the child’s mother, and sat with her head in the mom’s lap during the entire visit.

“She has a sixth sense about who needs her,” Ms. Ryan said.

Erin Fesnak of Schaumburg schedules JoJo for her 11-year-old daughter, Ava Perez. Ava has anxiety about medical procedures after having surgery last year and suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, Ms. Fesnak said.

“The dog calmed her down tremendously,” she said.

The first visit was just a consultation, when Ava was able to meet JoJo and the dental office could evaluate if the interaction was positive.

On her next visit, the dog helped calm Ava enough for her to get X-rays.

“For her to come in and get the X-rays was amazing,” Ms. Fesnak said.

Since then Ava has not had a panic attack about going to the dentist.

JoJo, like all of the Lutheran Ministry’s dogs, is a golden retriever.

But Billie Smith, who heads the Alliance of Therapy Dogs based in Wyoming, said that any breed could serve as a therapy dog.

“We have 1-pound Chihuahuas and 280-pound mastiffs who work as service dogs,” Ms. Smith said.

The only restriction is that the dog not be part wolf or coyote.

There are about 17,000 therapy dogs registered through the volunteer organization, with about 15,000 handlers, Ms. Smith explained.

There is no specialized training, but the organization does have a registration process with a number of testers who certify that the dogs and the handlers are able to do the work.

The certification includes an obedience test that shows the dog can be under control with a 4-foot leash, evidence that the dog has good manners and doesn’t jump or try to lick people, and that the animal is not aggressive toward other dogs.

“We look at the temperament of the dogs,” Ms. Smith said. “We focus on the relationship between the dog and the handler.”

The registry extends into the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, Ms. Smith said.

Ms. Ryan said that interest in using a therapy dog spiked after numerous media outlets ran stories about JoJo.

“Dentists from all over the country have been calling up and asking, ‘can we order a JoJo?’” Ms. Ryan said.

However, she doesn’t know of any other comfort dogs through Lutheran Charities being used in dental offices and no Chicago area certification handlers from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs reported going to dental offices.

Ms. Smith said using a dog at a dental office sounds like a good idea, but that dentists should not just bring in their own pet for an afternoon.

The dog’s needs, such as bathroom breaks and quiet time, have to be considered as well.

Plus, therapy dogs have experience that a regular pet would not have.

“Our dogs are all socialized in a good number of situations,” Ms. Smith said. “So, for instance, the use of a dental drill wouldn’t bother them at all.”

Mr. DeRosier is the CDS staff writer.

Photography: Tricia Koning


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