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Therapy dogs calm dental anxiety

Dental hygienist Stephanie Hernandez cleans Amanda Jenson’s teeth while therapy dog Sparkles comforts Jenson’s anxiety at New Heights Dental in Rio Rancho earlier this month.
Photo by Amy Byres / Observer

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A Rio Rancho dog helps patients’ teeth sparkle at a dentist’s office.

A fluffy, small, white dog named Sparkles brightens everyone’s day at New Heights Dental at 4111 Barbara Loop, Suite D2.

Sparkles is a registered dog with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international therapy dog organization. Cathie Haggard is a retired Rio Rancho Public Schools teacher and owner of Sparkles.

“I love it, and she loves it. I was a teacher and I would watch people bring their dogs to school and I said, ‘This is what I want to do when I retire,’ so I did,” Haggard said.

In a pink dress and nails painted to match, Sparkles wore her best pearls to comfort dental patient Amanda Jenson. All four pounds of Sparkles jumped onto Jenson’s lap while the dental hygienist cleaned her teeth.

“Look at her: She is in her element and she just loves to be loved,” Haggard said.

Before Sparkles would visit the dentist’s office, Jenson would use self-hypnosis to control her anxiety.

“I just feel a great amount of anxiety and panic, like where I just want to run away. I tense up a lot, I just feel a lot more pain, even if it is not that bad just because of the anxiety that it creates,” Jenson said.

Therapy dog Sparkles comforts a dental patient at New Heights Dental earlier this month. She is registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international therapy dog organization, and owned by a retired teacher.
Photo by Amy Byres

She feels differently when Sparkles is with her.

“Sparkles was very calming because the weight really does help me to have that pressure. And she is very patient and calm, and just knowing that I wasn’t alone was nice,” she said.

With a therapy dog waiting at Dr. Mike Sweeney’s office, Jenson said she is less anxious to schedule an appointment.

“It is nicer to know that this is available. I feel like this office has gone above and beyond in many different ways to make me more comfortable,” Jenson said.

According to UCLA Health’s website, therapy dogs have positive effects mentally and physically.

Petting animals triggers a relaxation response with serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin being released, according to the website. These hormones typically reduce anxiety, provide comfort and make one feel less lonely.

In addition, the website said physical effects can include lower blood pressure, diminished pain, and reduced amount of medications someone needs.

“I hear all the time that people are scared to go to the dentist, or I had a bad experience when I was kid, or whatnot. A lot of times in the past, we have treated it traditionally with medications or with nitrous oxide or stuff like that. With this, we can treat patients without medications,” Sweeney said. “I think it also relaxes the staff as well.”

Dental hygienist Stephanie Hernandez can attest to that.

“It makes our job a little bit easier because we know our patients’ stress levels are being reduced and we don’t have to take as many breaks, if any. It is even calming for me,” Hernandez said.

This idea to bring therapy dogs to the dentist began with Haggard, who is also a patient of Sweeney.

Haggard told Sweeney about how she is part of a therapy dog organization and brings dogs everywhere.

After researching therapy dogs in dental offices, Sweeney found they reduce anxiety.

Therapy dogs are most successful with children that come to his office, he said.

Sweeney brings in therapy dogs about once a week for patients who are getting their teeth cleaned. There is no snuggle time for patients getting teeth pulled or other work done that could get infected, he said.

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