May 2022 Volume LVII Number 3


Pup Therapy

“When you feel lousy, puppy therapy is indicated.” —Sara Paretsky

July 2016 Volume LI Number 4

Pup therapy, unlike most clinical breakthroughs, wasn’t born out of medical necessity but rather out of dire domestic need. Dr. Kaaren Vargas discovered pup therapy incidentally after being forced to take her home-defiling canine to work. While she was out caring for the children of North Liberty, Iowa, pooch Daisy was at home consoling herself by scratching and chewing all manner of household items. Being a psychiatrist at heart, Dr. Vargas realized her pup was reverting back to the oral stage of emotional development due to separation anxiety.

Dr. Vargas was also aware of the emerging research on animal assisted therapies; findings from a 2015 review that suggest animal assisted therapy may be of benefit to a wide range of individuals, including children with autism.1 As a member of the AAPD’s first ever evidence-based guideline workgroup on pulp therapy, she is also well aware of the need for evidence and research. Incorporating her pets into her practice has allowed her to marry complementary and traditional therapies.

Practically, it was cheaper to keep Daisy off the [psychiatrist’s] couch, both figuratively and literally, by bringing her to work every day; so Daisy, a lemon beagle, joined the staff in 2009 as the first therapy dog at Corridor Kids. Daisy, a lemon beagle, joined the staff in 2009 as the first therapy dog at Corridor Kids Pediatric Dentistry. The decision to bring Daisy to work involved checking state and federal ordinances pertaining to animals in health care settings, in addition to preparing patients and staff for her presence. On the front door was posted a notice stating, "A dog is on the premises." All patients were notified and queried regarding allergies or preferences. Daisy and her colleague therapy dogs have been padding down the corridors for seven years now. Only a handful of patients have requested the dogs be kept away—a request Dr. Vargas’ staff cheerfully obliges.

Initially, Dr. Vargas viewed this arrangement as furniture-sparing not the new behavior modification tool that it has become. Dr. Vargas enjoyed having Daisy in the office and soon realized the benefit Daisy’s presence had on everyone—staff, parents, and patients. Daisy was calming everyone down, from toddlers to hygienists. Just as she had comforted Dr. Vargas after a stressful day providing pulp therapies, Daisy’s pup therapy was bringing a smile to everyone.

Daisy was so successful at her job of rewarding patients for good behavior, she was asked to mentor Maggie, a five-year-old lemon beagle rescue, before she retired at age 74 (16 in dog years). Daisy and her mentee Maggie would arrive at 6 a.m. each day with Dr. Vargas. Daisy showed Maggie the ropes; she let her know where to take a cat nap and where the staff kept the leashes so they could take a hygienist out for a walk. Unlike the doctor, Daisy refused to work eleven-hour days without a break.

When awake or not out walking with staff, Daisy and Maggie could be found under Dr. Vargas’ desk or in the corner of the operatory waiting to greet patients after their visit. Daisy taught Maggie not to bark, lick or jump on any patient. Maggie learned quickly, and soon took Daisy’s esteemed place as sole therapy dog at Corridor Kids. Maggie solo career was short-lived, since Dr. Vargas adopted Nix, now a two-year-old Bichon.

Daisy, Maggie and Nix have all earned high marks on patient surveys. Some patients state the therapy pups are the best feature of the practice, an opinion Dr. Vargas and her staff share. (Although Dr. Vargas does think she has best human team, too.)

Today Nix and Maggie visit with patients before or after their visit with Dr. Vargas; patients arrive knowing they will be treated to a staff-supervised pup therapy. Best of all, no radiographs are needed to prove it works; patients’ smiles say it all.

1 Maujean, Annick, Christopher A. Pepping, and Elizabeth Kendall. "A systematic review of randomized controlled trials of animal-assisted therapy on psychosocial outcomes." Anthrozoös 28.1 (2015): 23-36.


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