A few months ago, pediatric dentist Dr. Paul Weiss sent a letter to his patients announcing an addition to his staff. The letter included a photo of the friendly face they might see during visits and a paw print acting as a signature from Weiss’ golden retriever, Brooke, a certified therapy dog.
Brooke, now 4, started off spending one morning a week at the dental office in East Amherst, where the waiting room is painted in bright colors and furnished with a small table and chairs, art supplies, an old-fashioned video game terminal and an electronic piano keyboard. But the demand for appointments on “Brooke days” was so great that she now works there on both Wednesday and Thursday mornings.
“Our mission is really to make kids comfortable coming to the dentist, to keep them coming back,” says Weiss, who has operated the practice for 23 years. “We want to make sure their dental experience is positive, and Brooke is one more means to accomplish that.”
Brooke’s presence at the practice has drawn lots of attention over the past 10 days, after a sweet photo of her stretched out in the dental chair next to a young patient was posted on Facebook and shared thousands of times.
One woman who saw that photo sent an email saying that she wished she had the opportunity to interact with a friendly dog during her childhood dental visits. Another person who lives past Batavia called to make an appointment at Weiss’ office, says Pam Gerwurz, the office’s scheduling coordinator.
People posting on the office’s Facebook page from all over the country lauded Weiss for the idea. One woman wrote, “Dr. Weiss, I wish you were here in Massachusetts, because I would certainly be brave enough to go to the dentist if I knew such a wonderful pup would be sitting on my lap.”
Weiss says he got the idea of having Brooke certified as a therapy dog after seeing her interactions with people they met on walks near their Williamsville home.
“I noticed that people would look down at her and smile,” says Weiss. “I thought, ‘She’s probably got a higher purpose in life than just being the family pet.’ ”
Because of their ability to reduce stress and comfort people, therapy animals are now permitted in many institutional and medical settings, including hospitals and nursing homes. Weiss researched the use of therapy dogs in dental offices and found a few others across the country. He had Brooke trained to pass the Therapy Dog International certification test, an hours-long evaluation of the dog’s temperament and ability to cope with distractions and surprises.
Weiss also brought Brooke to work on days off to acclimate her to the sounds, sights and smells of the office. After passing her test, she was ready to start work, and the letter was sent to patients.
In the letter, Weiss explained that Brooke is bathed weekly before her work days and the office is thoroughly cleaned and vacuumed after she leaves.
During the day, Tracy Seiler, who works at the front desk, keeps close tabs on Brooke as she moves around the open-plan office, which has a 120-gallon saltwater aquarium and a large bulletin board covered with photos of youngsters with the dog. “Basically, I follow her,” says Seiler, though Brooke obeys instantly when called.
Brooke greets people by approaching slowly for petting. After a few minutes, she is back to work, sitting close by a young patient during an exam.
If invited and told “Brooke, place,” she will climb carefully onto the dental chair, settling down next to the patient. Weiss says that the young man in the photo that has become popular on Facebook, a longtime patient, asked him that day, “If I tell you that I’m scared, can I have the dog on my lap?”
On a recent morning, Brooke shared the chair with Nathan White, 3, as he had his first checkup.
“I think seeing the dog helped him out a lot,” said Nathan’s dad, Chris White, of Lancaster. Baby sister Nora, 1, was also delighted to see Brooke. “We have a dog at home about the same size, and as soon as Nora saw this dog, she started saying, ‘Jake!’ ” said White. “The dog hopped right up on the chair with him, and Nathan did great.”
Brooke also sat with Michael Dispenza, 13, after a dental procedure. She placed her head under Michael’s hand for petting, then hopped up on a short stool brought over so she could get closer. Finally, she joined him on the chair.
Michael’s parents, Paul and Melissa Dispenza of Amherst, said they have been bringing Michael and his sister, Samantha, 15, to see Weiss since the children were toddlers. “We were excited when we got the letter saying Brooke would be at the office, because we are all dog-lovers,” said Melissa Dispenza.
Brooke, whose parents were both Canadian show dogs, is Weiss’ first dog, purchased after years of lobbying by his son, Jake, now 20.
Brooke not only cheers up patients, she brightens the day for the staff, too, says employee Mindy Solecki. “People say, ‘The patients must love it when Brooke is there,’ and I say, “The staff loves it, too!’ ”
“It changes the whole atmosphere in the office when she is here,” says Weiss. “She can read energy very well and has the proper temperament for this work.“
Pet Tales update: Back in May, officers of the HEART Animal Rescue & Adoption Team were looking for a new home after the building in which the group rents space at 48 Buffalo St. in Hamburg was put up for sale. But the sale fell through, and the group is still operating its adoptions center on a month-to-month basis in the storefront. While the future at that address is uncertain, the group also has opened an adoption center in Transitowne Plaza, 4219 Transit Road, Clarence.
“We are committed to remaining in Hamburg, but we were lucky enough to connect with a group of people who wanted to work with us in the Northtowns,” says Sharon Gorman, vice president of HEART. “It’s not as saturated with animal adoption centers out there, and we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. We have been getting some nice adoptions, but because it’s so new, people don’t know that we’re there.”
The storefront has a logo in the window but no sign yet. It is open from noon to 6 p.m. six days a week except Sunday, when it is open by appointment. Call 225-1183 for more information.
“It’s a very nice little place,” says Gorman. “It’s very welcoming, it’s kept very clean, and the cats and kittens are free-roaming.”
Plans for the Transitowne adoption center include a possible pet pantry, says Gorman. “We want to give back to the public a little bit.”
Other adoption centers in local shopping malls include ones operated at the Walden Galleria and Eastern Hills Mall by the SPCA Serving Erie County. The Tabby Town cat adoption center in McKinley Mall in Blasdell is operated by Friends for Felines.