Dentist uses dogs for anxious patients
“Do you want Atkins to lay on your lap?” she asked.
Levi nodded and Kucera helped Atkins jump into the dental chair and rest his head on a pillow on Levi’s chest. As Levi stroked the soft fur over Atkins’ ears, the dentist numbed Levi’s mouth and pulled out two of his teeth.
“The dog made me happy and calm,” Levi said.
Across the country, a growing number of dentists are bringing in four-legged staff members to reduce stress for children and adults, usually at no additional cost to patients. Dental patients at a practice in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for example, can cuddle a cockapoo named Charlie, while those at a practice in Nashville visit PeeWee, a French bulldog. In Cornelius, North Carolina, Whalen Dentistry says a goldendoodle named Beamer will “take any appointment a little less…RUFF!”
Yet the proliferation of dental dogs highlights a surprising lack of regulation. In most states, nothing prevents a dentist from bringing in an untrained pet and calling it a comfort or therapy dog, which can put patients at risk of infection or stroke. of dog. Patients with allergies or fear of dogs may also have concerns.
In North Carolina, complaints from patients concerned about health and safety prompted state regulators to approve a rule allowing only certain types of highly trained dogs in dental exam rooms. It came into force in June 2021 and is considered the first nationwide regulation of its kind.
Up to 1 in 3 Americans experience dental anxiety and fear. For them, a visit to the dentist can be terrifying, and research indicates that dogs can help. A small study published in the journal Animals found that dentist-afraid patients who had a dog lying on their lap during treatment experienced lower stress levels and lower blood pressure.
Other research shows that animals in healthcare settings can reduce pain perception and improve patients’ moods.
The Americans With Disabilities Act allows people with disabilities to bring a service dog to health care facilities, including dental clinics. These animals do not present a significant risk of transmission of infection in a dental office, according to Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention.
The North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners issued an initial rule that would have allowed only service dogs for patients with disabilities in dental exam rooms, effectively banning ‘rehabilitation dogs’ like Atkins. In response, dog lovers and dental patients flooded the board with emails, said Bobby White, CEO and legal counsel for the board.
The council then proposed allowing facility dogs in dental practices as well.
Establishment dogs receive the same intense training as service dogs, but learn tasks to help many people, rather than just one, said Kyria Henry Whisenhunt, executive director and founder of Paws4people Foundation. The North Carolina-based nonprofit has trained Atkins and three other dental dogs in the state.
Facility dogs are trained to work in specific work environments, Whisenhunt said. For example, Atkins had to be desensitized to sounds like the screeching of the dentist’s drill. The dog also had to practice resting its head on a patient’s lap and staying still while a dentist worked.
Other facility dogs work with professionals in special education, physical and occupational therapy, and mental health care.
“Our goal was to make sure the dogs are safe,” White said. “There’s a lot of difference between an establishment dog who has special training and someone who goes on the internet, buys a vest and puts it on a Chihuahua.”
The Michigan State Animal Legal and Historical Center researched laws and regulations in all 50 states for Kaiser Health News and found that only Virginia, New Jersey and Georgia specifically prohibit animals (except pets). service animals) in dental facilities. The center’s attorney, Rebecca Wisch, found no other guidelines regarding dogs in a dental practice. “I think the NC regulation is unique,” she said in an email.
James Sparks, an Oklahoma dentist who is president of the American Association of Dental Boards, said he was not aware of any similar law. He added that personally he would never bring an animal into his practice. “I can’t risk a dog jumping out while I’m working,” he said.
Atkins, who is 6, received 600 hours of training from Paws4people. She and Kucera then trained together for another 50 hours. There was no cost for Kucera to get Atkins, but she had to pledge to raise $10,000 for the foundation. Although Atkins lives with Kucera, she belongs to Paws4people.
On days Atkins works at Charlotte Pediatric Dentistry, a sign at the front desk alerts patients that a dog is on duty. If anyone has allergies or is afraid of dogs, the staff puts Atkins in their kennel in a back room.
For younger patients, Atkins jumps into the dental chair and models the behavior. She gets her own clip-on towel and keeps her mouth open while Kucera checks her teeth with a mirror.
When patients want Atkins on their lap, Kucera uses a disposable sheet to create a barrier between the patient’s clothing and the dog so the patient doesn’t come home covered in dog hair. She said she has never had a problem with Atkins interfering with a dentist’s work and many families request the dog for every appointment.
Levi said that was his plan too. “It’s really, really helpful,” he said. “Everyone should have one.”
This article was produced by Kaiser Health News (KHN), a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is an endowed nonprofit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.