There's a dog in my operatory

May 30, 2012
Renee Knight
Issue 9

It all started with a scared little girl who found comfort in a puppy. The little girl, Maya, came to Dr. Allan Pike’s pediatric dentistry practice in Portland for a pulpotomy, a procedure they needed to get done right away. But things weren’t going well, at least not until dental assistant Julie Dubansky offered to bring in her puppy, Madison. That seemed to calm Maya down, and was the beginning of what some of Dr. Pike’s patients drive as many as three hours to experience: Dog day at the dental office.

It all started with a scared little girl who found comfort in a puppy.

The little girl, Maya, came to Dr. Allan Pike’s pediatric dentistry practice in Portland for a pulpotomy, a procedure they needed to get done right away. But things weren’t going well, at least not until dental assistant Julie Dubansky offered to bring in her puppy, Madison. That seemed to calm Maya down, and was the beginning of what some of Dr. Pike’s patients drive as many as three hours to experience: Dog day at the dental office.

Before Maya came in for her next appointment, her parents called to confirm Madison would be there. Maya was planning to bring her a bone.

“Madison was there and happy because she got a bone, Dr. Pike was happy because he got the work done and I was happy to bring my dog to work,” Dubansky said. “And Maya had a positive experience. Everybody was really happy with the whole interaction.”

Not just any dog will do

Dr. Pike already had gerbils in his office that he encouraged his patients to play with and feed, so it only seemed natural to “blow it up” to a dog, Dubansky said. So once Dubansky found out about a program to certify dogs for animal therapy, she decided to enroll both her dogs, Madison and Morgan. Dr. Pike made some calls to the health department and his state dental board to make sure he could put the dogs to work in his practice, Dentistry for Children.

Once everything was in place, it just seemed to snow ball, Dubansky said. Patients would request certain dogs, and each time Dubansky brought them in she had to bath them, brush their teeth and clean their ears. Soon they decided to devote an entire day, Wednesday, to the dogs.

Parents often call in seeking Wednesday appointments for their children, and some who have moved away still drive to Portland for their doggie fix. Madison and Morgan, who began their work at the practice in 1996, recently retired. Dog day at Dr. Pike’s office lives on with the newest therapy dog, Olive, who began her career about a year ago.

Why it works

Children are often scared when they walk into a dental office, as are their parents. Nervous parents may be reliving a bad experience they had at the dental office or are simply worried about how their child will behave during that first visit. These parents tend to hover, making the child more nervous and making it difficult for the dental team to build a relationship with that child.

The dogs help take their mind off their fears. The parents relax, and so do the children.

“They (the children) feel more like they’re at home than at the dental office,” Dr. Pike said. “The dog is right there with them. A lot of times they’re petting the dog while they’re getting their teeth looked at, while they’re getting them cleaned or while they’re getting a filling.”

The dogs also give them a role model of sorts, Dubansky said. If Johnny puts fluoride varnish on his tooth, he can give the dog her vitamin. The office is open, so other children see this interaction and can learn from it as well.

A sense of empowerment

During their Wednesday office visit, the children can give Olive commands, hold her on her leash in the waiting room and really feel like they’re in control, Dubansky said. When a 3-year old feels like he’s the boss of a 65-pound dog, it gives him a lot of confidence as he walks through the hallway.

Staff members ask the patient where he wants the dog, whether it’s on the floor or on the bench, again making him feel like the boss.

“They get to control their environment. That empowerment is huge when you’re that young and you get to tell the adults what you want to do with the dog,” Dubansky said. “That sense of control gives them confidence and the ability to tell us if they want us to stop doing something. They know when they’re uncomfortable they can raise their hand. It’s a nice distraction, and it gives them the perception they are the boss of the dog, and us. They can have what they want.”

It might work for adult patients, too

Dubansky also takes her dogs to rehab units at a local hospital, so she’s seen first hand what therapy dogs can do for adult patients. Back at Dr. Pike’s practice, parents often ask her about bringing the dogs to their dental office. Why? The dogs offer a calming effect for any nervous patient trying to forget a bad experience.

But the healing power goes even further. Dubansky has seen people overcome their fear of dogs at Dr. Pike’s office, whether it be a parent or a patient. They see everyone else petting the dog and realize it’s OK, there’s no reason to be afraid.

And watching the patients interact with the dogs, that’s great to see at any age.

“It helps adults in a hospital context when they’ve had a life changing event like a stroke or a brain injury,” Dubansky said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re 2 or 92 it helps no matter what when you have people poking and prodding and telling you to do this. The dog comes in and is non judgmental. The patients are happy. They’re smiling. It helps with pain. It would be great to have the dogs in an adult dental practice.”

How to get started

If you want to add a therapy dog to your practice, Dr. Pike recommends calling the local health department and state dental board first to get the go ahead. Then you must find the right dog. Therapy dogs are gentle, docile animals. You can’t just bring your pet to the office and expect patients to be OK with it.

“You have to have one employee handling the dog 100 percent of the time and making sure things stay controlled, and the dog itself has to be a certified pet assistant therapy dog,” Dr. Pike said. “We even had a vest made for the dog, just like a Seeing Eye dog, so everybody realizes it’s not just somebody’s pet.”

If you or a team member has a dog you think would be a good fit for your practice, you have to get it certified. There are certification programs everywhere, Dubansky said, and a simple Google search for animal therapy or pet assisted therapy should take you to some local options.

Once you have the dog, pick one day out of the week to have her in the office, Dubansky said. Not everybody likes dogs, and some people may even be allergic. Don’t force it on any of your patients, and make sure any new patients you schedule for doggie day know there will be a dog in the office when they arrive.

And remember, it doesn’t end when the dog is certified.

“Once they do get certified they have to go through a lot of obedience training. They have to be social and they have to like humans,” Dubansky said. They have to be bathed and vaccinated and all the health things. It is a lot of work doing this but it’s definitely rewarding. It can make a difference. Having a child hold a leash seems so simple but it makes a huge difference at the end of an appointment. They leave happy and their tooth is fixed.”

The practice benefits

When children and parents have a dog to look forward to, they’re less likely to break or re-schedule appointments, Dubansky said. They schedule themselves to make sure they see the dog, so they don’t want to lose their spot. Patients stay with your practice because, like the dogs they look forward to seeing, they have a sense of loyalty. They’re comfortable. They feel like they’re visiting a friend’s house rather than going to the dentist.

And that’s how Dr. Pike wants it. That’s why he added gerbils to his practice 35 years ago, and why he’s kept the dogs around all these years. He wants his patients to have a positive experience. He wants them to leave happy and looking forward to their next visit.

“As long as the children are happy, the staff is happy. The main thrust of this office is on having children leave here saying ‘I really had a great time today.’ It’s not on fixing teeth. Fixing teeth is secondary,” Dr. Pike said. “Giving them a good memory of coming to the dentist is primary. The dog definitely helps with that. The dog makes children happy and once they’re happy they’re willing to listen to suggestions about taking fluoride or brushing their teeth and not eating too much candy. The dog isn’t the whole thing, but one of a number of things that make children comfortable and receptive.”