Study: Therapy Dogs Reduce Children’s Fear, Anxiety During Dentist Appointments

Child lies in dentist chair with therapy dog watching

A new Case Western Reserve University study found that children visiting the dentist reported reduced situational fear when a certified therapy dog is present.

The research was done by the university’s School of Dental Medicine and Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, with support from Salimetrics, a Southern California, company that collects saliva samples for analysis.

Aviva Vincent, a Mandel School instructor, researcher and recent PhD graduate of the school, together with her team surveyed 199 dental patients and 79 dental professionals about the acceptability and desire to have therapy dogs in the pediatric dentist office. Results showed that 63 percent of the patients were interested, while 80 percent of the dental professionals were “open to the idea.”

Then, 18 children between age 8 and 12, who needed cavities filled, participated in the pilot study—the second phase of a two-part study examining the relationship between certified therapy dogs  and children.

Researchers collected the children’s saliva samples before and after dogs were brought into the dentist office to measure cortisol and alpha-amylase—both stress indicators—and oxytocin, a relaxation response.

“This is an innovative step in the research because oxytocin has remained somewhat illusive—being able to measure change of oxytocin over time helps us understand, from a strengths perspective, the physiological benefit of human-animal interaction,” Vincent said.

Findings from the study highlighted that 83 percent of parents and guardians supported the therapy dog’s presence during their child’s dental appointment. But all of them supported the idea in a follow-up survey.

“Within the past few years, it’s become widely accepted that pet ownership and animal assisted therapy has various biopsychosocial positive effects on people,” Vincent said. “Existing research has provided evidence of the benefits. What hasn’t been as clear is how therapy animals help.”

Vincent said it’s important to distinguish therapy dogs from service dogs and emotional support animals. The role of therapy dogs, she said, is to react and respond to people and their environment, under the guidance and direction of their owner. For example, the children in the dentist office were encouraged to gently pat or talk to a dog as a calming technique.

Service dogs, on the other hand, are trained to provide specific support for individuals with disabilities.

Vincent said that perhaps the biggest takeaway of the pilot study was that collecting saliva samples is a viable, non-invasive way to measure stress and fear indicators in social science research.

“The idea is to find out how an animal can augment a situation,” she said. “Is it reducing fear, anxiety, stress or all of them? The next step is to get a much larger sample size.”

Plans are to continue the research at CWRU and to expand the same methodology to humans interacting with horses at the Field Stone Farms Therapeutic Riding Center in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where Vincent also works as the director of program quality.