Therapy dog makes trips to the dentist a bit less ‘ruff’

Doctor brings her canine in to help soothe anxious patients.

Photo courtesy of Cherry Hill Dental Excellence. Dr. Zahra Afsharzand and her therapy dog Leo stand outside Cherry Hill Dental Excellence in Cherry Hill on Covered Bridge Road.

Going to the dentist can provoke anxiety in some people. There’s something inherently vulnerable and invasive about having someone work on your mouth. 

So Dr. Zahra Afsharzand of Cherry Hill Dental Excellence started reading up on how she might alleviate patient anxiety and came upon research on therapy dogs. Enter Leo, her family’s dog and the dental office’s newest source of calm.

Leo was trained by Pet Assisted Visitation Volunteer Services Inc. (PAWS), a nonprofit  that trains therapy dogs. Afsharzand brings Leo with her to the office and patients have an opportunity to spend a few minutes with the cockapoo prior to treatment.

Afsharzand said she often sees patients walk in with a certain degree of nervousness that for some, may be the result of a negative experience. For others, it may be that the mouth is a sensitive area of the body. Whatever the reason, Leo is there to provide a calming effect.

As a first time dog owner, Afsharzand  admits she did her fair bit of research before getting Leo. She knew she needed to find a dog that was hypoallergenic,  for patients with allergies, and a smaller breed that could come and go in the office with ease. Her family settled on a cockapoo.

When Afsharzand and her daughter went to pick out their dog, there was  something about Leo’s personality; he just stood out. He was about three months old when they brought him to their Cherry Hill home.

Leo went to obedience training to learn basic commands; from there, he underwent therapy training with PAWS. Next up is Leo’s certification through the American Canine Association, which will begin in another month. If all goes according to plan, the dog will be skilled enough to deal with the elderly and patients in a hospital.

Meanwhile, Leo helps ease fear in Afsharzand’s patients. She brings Leo to the office a few days a week, and there’s a sign in the lobby offering patients the opportunity to spend some time with the therapy dog prior to their visit. If they agree to that, Leo is brought out and patients can pet him and enjoy his company for a few minutes.

So far, the response has been nothing short of positive. Afsharzand said patients who have met Leo almost immediately ask where he is the next time they visit.

“Patients love him,” she said.