Debbie Zaiger hates going to the dentist. She puts off her appointments as long as she can.
“My level of anxiety at the dentist is really high - so much so that I need laughing gas just to get my teeth cleaned,” she said.
Then last month, she learned about Ollie.
When Zaiger, 61, showed up for her hygiene appointment in downtown Minneapolis, she reclined in the dentist’s chair and Ollie, a fluffy, 80-pound English goldendoodle, hopped into her lap and sprawled across her legs.
Zaiger said she was able to relax, this time without nitrous oxide.
“While my teeth were being cleaned, I was petting Ollie and rubbing his head and ears, and he fell asleep on top of me,” she said. “He’s such a good boy, and he was really calming. I’m surprised at how much he helped.”
Ollie belongs to hygienist April Kline. She started bringing the sweet-natured 4-year-old canine to work with her at J & D Dental from time to time last year, thinking he might help comfort nervous patients.
Studies have shown that petting dogs can relax people and reduce stress, and that dogs benefit from the interaction as well. About 36 percent of Americans have dentophobia - a fear of going to the dentist, with 12 percent having an extreme fear, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Kline is familiar with what that anxiety looks like.
She and her family got Ollie as a pup a few years ago at the height of the pandemic and trained him to respond to basic commands. At the time, the dental office was temporarily closed because of covid.
After Kline returned to work, she said her husband and two teenage daughters came in one day to get their teeth cleaned and brought Ollie with them.
“My husband is a very anxious patient, and while he was lying in the chair, Ollie jumped on top of him and fell asleep,” said Kline, 47. “He wasn’t bothered at all by the dental noises.”
Jerry Kline Jr. and her daughters, Jaelyn and Abigail, loved it, she said.
“Ollie helped my husband to relax - he said he felt better having him there,” Kline said. “That gave me an idea: What if Ollie could help some of our other anxious patients too?”
Dentist Jennifer Herbert, who owns the practice, thought it was a great idea. She agreed that Ollie could provide emotional support for clients who requested him, as long as other patients with appointments on those days were okay with having him in the office.
“I’m a huge dog lover,” said Herbert, who occasionally brings her own dog in to hang out behind the front desk.
“Dentistry isn’t an easy profession - nobody tells us that coming here is the best day of their life,” she said. “Having Ollie here has been a game changer. He brightens everyone’s day and he’s become a huge hit.”
Even clients who don’t fear dental drills like having the cute pup around, she said.
“I don’t have any [dental] fears or dislikes, but I did enjoy his fluffy presence on my lap,” said Maya Norman, 42, about her cleaning appointment with Ollie.
“It was a great distraction,” she said. “I don’t own a dog, but I do love them. An hour with Ollie and super clean teeth? Yes, please.”
That’s what Kline said she had in mind when she began scheduling appointments to include cuddle time with Ollie.
“He’s a very chill dog,” she said. “Patients tell us that having him with them made it the best appointment of their lives. They feel like they’re wearing a warm weighted blanket.”
For now, Ollie works about three days a month and is paid with dog treats and lots of pampering. Kline said he seemed excited to be featured recently in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
“We don’t have him here every day because we don’t want him to work too hard,” said Herbert, 51. “And we want to make sure that everyone who comes to the office on those days is okay with him being here.”
Most people are tickled to see him, Kline said. Ollie, who Kline keeps well groomed, rests in a dog bed in her office between appointments, and he accompanies her to greet patients in the waiting room when they show up.
“When I lay the patients back, if they want him on them, Ollie will jump in their laps, snuggle between their legs and lay his head down on their chests,” she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence that animals pose a more significant risk of transmitting infection than people do in these kinds of environments. The CDC also says that anecdotally, some people with pets at home recover from medical procedures faster than people without pets.
Ollie, who is not a service animal, is fully vaccinated to comply with OSHA guidelines and is trained not to lick patients’ faces or go near their mouths, Kline said, noting that she and others who work with patients always thoroughly wash up and wear masks and gloves.
“He doesn’t go near their mouths,” Kline said.
Sue Heger is among the patients who wants every future appointment with Ollie.
“I had bad experiences at my childhood dentist’s office - it was a scary environment that carried over into my adult life,” said Heger, 57. “So I was excited when I came across a Facebook page and learned about Ollie.”
“It was the polar opposite of what I experienced as a child,” she said. “For 30 minutes, I petted Ollie while he rested his upper body on me, and I’ve never been more relaxed.”
“Even though I’m still a little nervous about going to the dentist, it’s not nearly as bad now with Ollie,” Heger added.
Kline said her popular pup is listed on the staff roster and is now booked up for the next several weeks, so at some point she may need to add additional time to his work schedule.
“Ollie loves being around people, and he goes to the door every morning when I grab my jacket and purse,” she said. “He thinks now that he should be allowed to go to work every day.”