Dental therapy dogs: a patient’s best friend

therapy dog
Dental therapy dog, Bruce

Patients with a dental phobia is an issue faced by most practitioners but at Warragul Dental Care in Victoria’s West Gippsland, the team has a secret weapon—Dogtor Bruce, the therapy dog. By Kerryn Ramsey

There’s a point of difference between Warragul Dental Care and most other practices. If a patient is scared of the dentist, or the upcoming procedure, or the needles, or even if they just need a bit of comfort, then Bruce the labrador is on hand to help them out. To the surprise and delight of most clients, Warragul Dental Care is the first practice in Australia to utilise a certified dental therapy dog.

The practice has been owned for the past three years by Dr Anand Makwana and his wife Belinda Brauman. While Dr Makwana looks after the dentistry, Brauman uses her background in project management to grow the practice through business development. 

“We’re a good team,” says Brauman. “Anand accepts nothing less than excellence in his dentistry while I’m totally concerned with the business side of things. I work on strategies to ensure we exceed patient expectations while providing excellent service.”

They revamped the old practice and, thanks to their caring attitude, discovered they had a large proportion of nervous patients as clients. To address the needs of these patients, Warragul Dental Care has employed the calming skills of a trained therapy dog. The results have been amazing.

“We always wanted a dog and we thought it would be great if we could have one to help with phobic patients,” says Brauman. “It took us six months to find a breeder with the right dog and we adopted Bruce, a labrador, when he was eight weeks old. All his brothers and sisters went to the Guide Dogs so he comes from a good breeding line.”

Training days

While they always planned for Brauman to train Bruce, they enlisted the help of Ernie Frappa, founder of K9 Synergy ( Frappa has spent over 30 years as a dog trainer and behaviour modification specialist.

“As it turned out, Ernie spent most of his time training me,” says Brauman. “He spent a lot of time teaching me how to imbed really good habits with Bruce and ensured I was doing all the right things.”

Bruce has been trained using positive reinforcement that rewards good behaviour. The training included habituation to a dental environment and lots of gentle poking and pulling to ensure Bruce would not react to such provocation. After all, you never know how kids are going to act with a dog.

“The dog must be able to cope with specific sounds that are present in a dental surgery including drills and suction,” says Frappa. “He must also be able to remain calm around excited and distressed adults and children.”

Having a dog in a dental practice also meant that appropriate infection control measures needed to be in place. “We’re an accredited practice so we already follow the highest level of infection control and hygiene,” says Dr Makwana.

“I’m pedantic in ensuring everything is done by the book. Having a dog in the practice doesn’t make much difference because the room is completely cleaned every time a patient leaves.”

Extra precautions

There are, however, a few extra precautions taken. Dr Makwana and Brauman are very aware that not everybody likes dogs so they have surgeries that Bruce never enters. Likewise, if a patient suffers from allergies, they can safely enter those surgeries because the dog has never been in there. Warragul Dental Care is a controlled environment where people don’t have to see Bruce if they choose not to. He sits behind the reception area so he’s not stimulated the whole time.

“We take pride in what we do and want our dental experience to be like nowhere else. Patient care is always our focus—and Bruce is a big part of that.”—Dr Anand Brauman, dentist and co-owner, Warragul Dental Care

“We take him out from behind reception to greet patients who want to be greeted,” says Dr Makwana. “Often they want to give him a pat or see him at the end of their appointment. Of course, Bruce is happy to go with patients who want him in the treatment room as well.”

On the scent

To keep Bruce smelling fresh, he visits the dog groomer every fortnight for a shampoo and bath. This is part of the process to ensure there is no ‘doggy’ smell in the practice.

“When not assisting a patient, Bruce stays on his bed,” said Brauman. “After he’s been in the surgery we do an extra thorough clean and vacuum. I’m very conscious of making sure we clean every night and remove any excess hair that Bruce might have dropped.”

Bruce is only 12 months old but has passed his exam as Australia’s first certified dental therapy dog. He has one more exam to pass that will qualify him for public access. Then he will be able to be taken into restaurants and on various forms of transport.

“I’m not planning on taking Bruce out to dinner with me but at least I know he’s passed the highest level of training,” says Brauman.

Word has quickly spread about the dental practice with the therapy dog and bookings have been rolling in. Bruce has a calm demeanour and the reaction of patients who suffer from dental fear has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“Research confirms the therapeutic effect of human-dog engagement and the feel-good chemicals released during this interaction,” says Frappa. “Anyone who is a little anxious about visiting the dentist will benefit from a therapy dog.”

Brauman has also seen the results from having a therapy dog. “Patients ring up and book in with Dogtor Bruce,” she says. “Often parents request that Bruce accompany their child into the surgery. He’s been getting a lot of attention and there’s definitely patients coming here because they want Bruce to be part of their experience. We almost need an appointment book just for Bruce. It’s all getting a bit crazy.”

The couple has worked hard to make their practice a part of the community, becoming members of various local business groups. “We’ve chosen this region to set up our family, home and business,” says Dr Makwana. “We take pride in what we do and want our dental experience to be like nowhere else. Patient care is always our focus—and Bruce is a big part of that.”

And it seems their exuberant attitude and willingness to try something new has not gone unnoticed. At the recent Federation Business School Gippsland Business Awards, Warragul Dental Care won the Health and Well Being award and was named Business of the Year. 

Warragul Dental Care owes its success to the attitude, energy and business acumen of Dr Makwana and Brauman—and to Bruce the therapy dog. There is no doubt that more dental practices will soon be utilising the calming influence of a well-trained canine. 

“K9 Synergy already has three other dogs in training for dental surgeries,” says Frappa. “The overwhelmingly positive response to Bruce—clients requesting appointments with him and travelling large distances—will see the utilisation of dental therapy dogs expand rapidly across Australia.”  

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