Bob walks around Central Illinois Smiles bringing cheer to those waiting to get dental work. "He greets everyone at the door," said his owner Dr. Katie Buskirk. "He likes to walk around and say Hi to everybody that's waiting in the chair. But mostly he just brings smiles to people's faces." (Clay Jackson/Herald & Review via AP)
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DECATUR, Ill. (AP) — The dentist office doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating, especially with Bob around.

The gangly, hairy Goldendoodle comfort dog is a welcomed member of the Central Illinois Smiles team taking care of their patients.

Bob trots from room to room, wherever he is needed. Like any loyal and busy employee, he responds to a call of his name or a simple cry, ready to get to work.

“He greets everyone at the door,” said his owner, Dr. Katie Buskirk. “He likes to walk around and say ‘Hi’ to everybody that’s waiting in the chair. But mostly he just brings smiles to people’s faces.”

When Buskirk, 38, began practicing at Central Illinois Smiles on North Woodford Street in Decatur more than a year ago, she brought Hazel, another therapy dog, with her. Hazel passed away two weeks ago at 10 years old. Bob joined the practice in October.

Buskirk worked at a community health center for 11 years before she began her private practice two years ago. And Hazel was one of the first ones brought into the pack.

Buskirk and her dogs are members of PawPrint Ministries, a team of trained comfort dogs. Hazel was certified nearly six years ago, allowing her to visit people in facilities that need support and comfort. She and Buskirk visited nursing homes, fundraisers and a free dental clinic. “She kept people calm and happy,” Buskirk said.

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At only a year old, Bob is new to the job. His training continues at home as well as in the office.

“He’s kind of like a baby moose. He’s all arms and legs,” Buskirk said. “But he’ll also sit and put his chin on a kid’s chest that’s crying. That’s kind of the natural instinct for him. He’s a big sweetie.”

According to Buskirk, Bob is a hypoallergenic dog and is kept away from the equipment and other materials used in patients’ mouths. For those that do not like dogs or are allergic, Bob keeps his distance. “Then he gets closed in my office,” Buskirk said.

The reactions have been positive. “People feel like they’re at home,” Buskirk said.

Dental anxiety is common among adults as well as children, which can stop the patients from visiting the dentist, Buskirk said. “One of the studies shows their biggest anxiety is when they are sitting in the lobby waiting to come back or when they are sitting in the chair waiting for the doctor,” Buskirk said. “That’s when Bob comes in.”

Patients with disabilities, including Autism, often visit the dentist office. The comfort dogs have provided needed support and calmness during a stressful event. Hazel was able to lay on the lap of a nervous patient. “We had one parent say that their child had never gotten through an entire cleaning before,” Buskirk said. “We were all crying all that day.”

Jennifer Dahn, PawPrint Ministries founder, has worked with comfort dogs and their owners throughout Central Illinois since 2014.

Before COVID-19 closed facilities to the public, comfort dogs would visit nursing homes, hospitals, cancer centers and behavioral health centers. “Once it starts to get a little more safe to be out, then we’ll be able to pick up our routine visits,” Dahn said.

In the meantime, the dogs will provide their love and comfort in other ways, including window visits, posing for pictures and relaying encouraging notes transcribed by their owners. “We try to reach out when we can in safe ways right now,” Dahn said.

The lack of interaction is not only heartbreaking for the clients, but also for the dogs. The animals are used to greeting people with hugs and kisses. “We went from hundreds to zero,” Dahn said about client interactions. “The highlight of my dog’s day was when the UPS man would show up at our house.”

To become a comfort dog, a special temperament is needed, according to Dahn. Community service is part of the job. “A dog that thrives on pleasing their owner and seeing a lot of people or lots of personalities,” Dahn said about the dog’s personality.

PawPrint Ministries has recently begun offering training sessions for new comfort dogs. “It’s important that our dogs are well trained and well behaved when they go out and get ready to work,” Dahn said. “It’s important to us that the people we serve, we keep them safe as well.”

Bob is one of the lucky ones to still be employed.

“He doesn’t know any different,” Buskirk said.


Source: The (Decatur) Herald & Review,