Dentist Lori Doran-Garcia's Palo Alto office is equipped with the usual features: reclining examination chairs, sample toothbrushes, a friendly front-desk staff. But there's also a secret weapon: Buster, the 4.5-year-old pug who patients say makes dental checkups something worth smiling about.
Buster takes his job seriously. When his presence is requested, the portly 25-pound canine promptly hops up on the reclining patient's lap and settles in for a good snuggle as Doran-Garcia goes about her work.
Being able to hold Buster during a dental procedure helps distract patients from the otherwise often unpleasant chore of having teeth poked, prodded or even drilled, Doran-Garcia said. And the act of petting an animal has been proven to lower blood pressure, she added. She said Buster is especially helpful for young patients, or anyone who suffers from anxiety during appointments.
When Buster was a small puppy, Doran-Garcia, who has three other dogs at home and has worked from her Middlefield Road office for 20 years, began bringing him to work with her in order to crate-train him in the back room. But, she said, "Every patient kept asking to hold him."
Because of his popularity, he soon got so used to being a part of dental exams that he learned to remain perfectly still while patients hugged and petted him, and to not be bothered by the sights and sounds around him. In fact, he seems to see cuddling patients as his duty.
"He will lay still the whole time. Drilling doesn't bother him. No noise bothers him. There are some kids I'd never be able to drill without Buster," Doran-Garcia said, recalling that when one young patient started crying in fear, Buster fetched a favorite bone and offered it to the girl, as if to say, "It's OK."
And when it's time for his next client, Buster is ready to move on.
"He knows when I'm done. He's ready to go, and he goes to find the next patient," she said.
Mimi Tudor and her children Benjy and Abby are Menlo Park residents and longtime patients of Doran-Garcia's. The family dropped by on a recent afternoon and said that the addition of Buster to the office roster has made their visits a treat.
"This is a really happy place to be," Tudor said. Describing herself as "majorly phobic" regarding pain and needles, she said Doran-Garcia and Buster's laid-back vibe help her relax.
Benjy, 12, said that unlike most kids, he actually looks forward to getting his teeth checked. As Buster settled on to his lap, Benjy said, "I feel his love."
When scheduling appointments, "We say, we'd like it 'with,'" Tudor said, and the receptionist knows that means a request for pug assistance.
"He's definitely been an asset. Now I'm getting people who only come because of him," Doran-Garcia laughed.
"I think he's unique, but other dogs could be trained," she said, though she stressed that Buster is unusually mellow for his breed.
"Patients have purchased pugs because of him and they're all crazy," she said.
Though he's not a certified therapy or service dog and has not received any specific training, Doran-Garcia said she's looked into it and is interested in doing more therapy work with Buster, including taking him on hospital and nursing-home visits.
She also researched laws, health codes and regulations to make sure it was safe and legal to have Buster present in the office.
"I never push him on anybody," she said. "I'm really careful about allergies, or fears. He stays in the back unless he's requested."
One elderly patient who didn't feel it was appropriate to have a dog in the office left and found another dentist, but on the whole, response to Buster has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.
"He makes so many people feel so comfortable. I have a lot of anxious patients, but he has really stepped it up" in terms of making them feel at ease, she said.
Tudor said she particularly likes how he puts his head on her chest and leans his face right up to hers as if seeking to make eye contact. And luckily, as befitting a dog who works in dentistry, "Buster's got good breath," she said.