UNC Dental Therapy Dogs could face change in role if new NC rules are adopted

Pets and Animals

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — Dental patients at the UNC-Chapel Hill Adams School of Dentistry can visit with a staff member whose only job is to ease anxiety and make the visit a little more fun.

“Grayson” is a certified therapy dog, who’s been part of the team at UNC for the past few years, but a recent announcement from the dental board may limit her role, and that of other therapy dogs, when it comes to interacting with patients.

For kids who love dogs, Grayson, can make a trip to the dentist a little easier.

“Kids are excited to be able to pet the dog. It distracts them from the dental procedure they’re going to have and makes it a much more positive experience,” explained Dr. Laura Jacox, an assistant professor at the UNC Adams School of Dentistry.

Grayson is not the only dental therapy dog in the Triangle. Some private practices have them, and “Farley” works as the orthodontic therapy dog at UNC.

Dr. Katelyn Cass, a 3rd year orthodontic resident at UNC, is Farley’s handler. She’s also studying animal-assisted therapy in dentistry.

“They [therapy dogs] add significant enjoyment to dental offices and they also add reduction in anxiety, which we know is a barrier to care,” Cass said.

There are some questions about the role of dental therapy dogs in North Carolina.

According to Doug Brocker, an attorney for the the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners, the board published a proposed amendment to clarify “only qualified service animals in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act and a related state statute are permitted in clinical areas of dental offices.”

Jacox says that limits dogs like Grayson and Farley to interacting with patients in waiting rooms or consultation rooms. It prohibits them from being next to or on the dental chair to calm patients during procedures.

“Everyone is slightly disheartened,” said Cass, adding, “UNC was the first dental school in the country to adopt a therapy dog to make patients and parents more comfortable.”

Brocker says the Dental Board received a number of comments about certified therapy dogs, including comments from UNC.

“[T]he Board will consider whether to further amend the rule in response to the comments to clarify if a certified facility dog, such as Grayson at UNC, also may be present in the clinical areas and to include a specific definition of what qualifies as a certified facility dog,” Brocker said, suggesting that the board will likely take up the issue at its April meeting.

Jacox and Cass say they think specifying qualifications a dog must meet is a positive step.

“I want them to lay out a series of training programs or classes or service organizations that they approve for the certification of therapy animals,” said Jacox. “You wouldn’t have a boa constrictor — you wouldn’t have some dog off the street. You would have a dog that went through a couple years worth of training and is accustomed to working with children or adults in a dental clinical setting.”

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