By Keshav Bhat, MS, OD
May 11, 2022
Visits to the doctor’s office, including your own, are more nerve-racking than you can imagine for some patients. Other patients may not be filled with anxiety about their visit, but may not be looking forward to it either.
When we added Harlow to our practice two years ago, the experience of many of our patients improved. Harlow is a rescue dog, who is a friend to patients while they are in our office, giving them more than just a new pair of glasses to look forward to.
There Are Health Benefits to Spending Time with Animals
Most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals. However, many of us remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies (Schuck 2013) have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond.
Pets evolved to become acutely attuned to humans, including our behavior and emotions. Dogs, for example, are able to understand many of the words we use, but they’re even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language and gestures.
Therapy animals are pets trained to provide affection and comfort to people in a variety of settings. Therapy pets help calm patients and may reduce anxiety in children and adults with phobias. By learning how therapy pets can help, their pros and cons, and how to introduce them into a practice setting, you can decide if this would be an asset to your clinic.
4 Things to Know Before Adding a Therapy Dog to Your Office
Harlow has been a welcome distraction from the COVID-induced anxiety that we see in a large swath of the population.
As Harlow became an integral part of our office team, there were a few things our practice had to consider:
It is critical to have a handler in charge of the dog 100 percent of the time to control the dog and any situation that may arise. There are training courses and programs to get the pet ready for testing to become certified as a therapy dog. It may be prudent to inform patients ahead of time that there will be a dog in the office during their appointment. It is also important to clearly post signs on your door about the presence of your pet.
There will be patients and staff members concerned about keeping the office clean and sterile with a dog in the office.
The good news is The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there is no evidence to suggest that animals pose a more significant risk of transmitting infection than people. Therefore, dogs do not have to be excluded from healthcare settings. In states that allow for medical eyecare procedures to be performed, it is considerate to keep pets out of those zones of the office, but it may be OK to have the pet in the room for an exam.
It is possible that a patient could be allergic to dogs, so it is important to inform all patients ahead of time that there will be a dog in the office during their visit. A hypoallergenic dog (one who does not shed) may minimize dander and fur allergies, but won’t help people with an allergy to dog saliva.
Cynophobia comes from the Greek words that mean “dog” (cyno) and “fear” (phobia). A person who has cynophobia experiences a fear of dogs that’s both irrational and persistent. It’s more than just feeling uncomfortable with barking or being around dogs. This is an important consideration to be aware of as a practice owner.
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If a patient expresses intense fear of the office’s dog, you can keep the dog in a separate area of the office, behind a closed door, for the duration of that patient’s visit.
Bottom Line: A Dog Can Make Patients Want to Return to Your Office & Employees’ Jobs More Enjoyable
If your patient base is largely children, or those who have anxiety, it may be a good idea to have a calm, reassuring dog follow you in the office. In fact, many of my patients call to ask if Harlow will be there as they are making appointments for their child.
Besides the benefit of having this welcoming and calming effect on our patient population, Harlow boosted employee morale. Staff enjoy having a pet follow me around. Everyone calls out, “Hey, Harlow,” every time she passes by. Our break room is well stocked with goodies for staff and our furry friend, making our meetings more enjoyable.
Staff members volunteer at lunchtime to take Harlow for a walk, which, in turn, improves their health and reduces their stress!