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What Do Good Dentists and Good Trainers Have in Common?

A good dentist makes me feel safe and keeps his word that he will not cause pain -- and that's exactly how a good trainer teaches a dog.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Jan 28th 2016


Like many of you, I hate going to the dentist.

I actually like my current dentist as a person, but I hate what his profession represents to me: pain. His name is Dr. Greg Mann, and as the world’s most patient dentist he is helping me learn to trust his kind again. He’s doing that in much the same way I help scared dogs learn to trust their environment again. I’ll explain how below; first a little more about my unlucky history with dentists.

When I was young and impressionable, I had four teeth pulled — it hurt. Then I had my wisdom teeth pulled — that also hurt. When I was a young adult, I had a really awful dentist who did not wait long enough for me to get numb (it happened more than once), and he went ahead with a root canal. I became squirmy and complained as best as I could with his hands in my mouth and tools hacking away. Touching raw nerves HURTS.

The doctor stopped drilling, looked at me angrily, and said: “You have two choices. You can squeeze my assistant’s hand real hard and let me finish, or we can stop and call an ambulance, and you are going to the hospital to finish this there.” I chose to squeeze because I just wanted to get out of his presence as quickly as possible.

I never went back to that dentist. I did note it when he landed on the front page of the local paper, however. He was “playing around” with the nitrous gas after work one night and blew up his dental office. Oops. Not exactly a stellar dentist or one I want anywhere near me or my teeth. One bad experience — and I have had way more than one — can cause a sense of fear and apprehension that is hard if not impossible to control, even with the help of the funny gas.

How does my fear at the dentist’s office relate to dog training? One scary incident with a person or another dog (and remember, the dog determines what is scary) can leave a dog fearful of those things, particularly when it happens to a vulnerable, young dog. Many dogs learn to warn off potential threats with distance-increasing behavior, such as lunging and barking.

While I don’t bark or growl at my dentist, I have bolted in fear from the dental chair. The old dentists gave no heed to my concerns, bulldozed their way around my mouth, and then tried to blame ME when I protested in real pain. They tried to shame me into shutting up. Imagine if they put a shock collar on me and delivered a zap anytime I disobeyed or complained. I could either sink into hopelessness and choose to not fight the pain or I could bite the source of the pain and bite hard (FYI, I would bite).

Dog ready to bite by Shutterstock.

Dog ready to bite by Shutterstock.

My new dentist chose to help me through my apprehension. One tool he used that I also employ with fearful dogs is desensitizing, or taking things slowly. He told me right away that he understood my fear. He then promised he would never proceed if I was not completely numbed. Talk is all good, but I still had my hackles up from years of bad dental care. My wise dentist went slowly. It was two years of appointments before he actually numbed my mouth and fixed a crown. It took two years of no pain during visits for me to begin to trust him.

The other thing Dr. Mann did and still does is to explain his steps before and during treatments. At one point, I pulled the gas nozzle off my nose and told him it made me feel claustrophobic. He said, no problem, and told me that many of his patients have felt that way. He then loosened the mask so it wasn’t pulling so tightly against my nose. I ripped it off one more time and told him my heart was racing. He told me that was because the numbing medication had an additive in it that acted like adrenaline and that caused an increased heart rate in some people. I then understood why my heart was beating so rapidly in spite of the funny gas. His explanation made perfect sense to me, and it helped calm me down.

He did one other thing that was crucial to my being able to not bolt from the chair. Dr. Mann said, “If at any point for any reason you need a break, raise your hand and I will immediately stop.” Being a cynic, I tested him. Twice. He stopped immediately, both times. What he did is give me a sense of CONTROL over my own body and my own fear. It worked.

How does all of this relate to helping dogs?

We use desensitizing to help a dog be able to look at or be around his trigger — whatever sets him off (often another dog). We never flood a dog, which means we don’t overwhelm the dog with something that scares him too quickly or too closely. We move slowly over time and from a distance, just as a good dentist doesn’t walk into your first appointment and start hacking away in your mouth without a detailed briefing of his plan and ensuring you feel OK about the situation (of course, things may proceed differently if there is a true dental emergency, but even then a good dentist explains his actions and checks in on you).

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My dog Radar is well trained and well versed in helping me help fearful dogs. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

While I can’t tell a fearful dog that I am going to bring a safe dog into the room for him to see, dogs do make predictions. After a dog in training is comfortable with me, I leave the room to get my calm, highly trained Border Collie Radar. I go in and out of the training room a few times with Radar, and the fearful dog sees him from a safe distance (the dog’s behavior tells me if he feels safe or not). He is quickly able to predict that Radar will stay away from him and that he is safe because Radar completely ignores him, and we are far enough away to not get the dog aroused or apprehensive. This is my way of telling the dog what is about to happen without the benefit of language.

The last component is choice over one’s environment. We have to keep the dogs on leashes for safety, but we allow the dog to look at my dog if he chooses. We allow the dog to eat (or not eat if he is too amped up, and that tells me to start even farther away) the delicious meat training treats that fall from the sky the second the dog sees my dog. We allow the dog to turn and look at his handler, turning his head away from the once scary other dog in the room, and we reinforce that with a very happy, smiling human handler, who hands out yum-o treats for the dog being able to make the choice to look away and at his handler.

Sometimes it is the first time in that dog’s life that he felt safe enough to turn his head away from another dog. He’s able to do it because we made sure he felt safe, we went slowly, and we worked from a distance. We reinforced the behavior we wanted.

The beauty of it all is that it takes teamwork, and perhaps for the first time, the human handler becomes a source of predicted calmness, who learns to reinforce the calm behavior she always wanted from her dog. It is a mutually reinforcing moment — and it reminds me of my very calm, smiling dentist who makes sure I feel safe, tells me what he is going to do, and keeps his word that he will not hurt me.

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The calm dog on the right, Azzie, is helping me help the once-reactive German Shepherd on the left. Azzie belongs to fellow trainer Sam Haeussner, KTP-CTP. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Only a safe dentist can help me overcome my fear of dentists, just as only a safe, well-trained, and experienced trainer and her well-trained, safe dog can help fearful dogs move past their apprehension of other dogs.

Now you know what good dog training and good dentistry have in common!

Read more by Annie Phenix:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.