Twelve-month-old Kelpie Teak is training to become Gippsland’s first public dental surgery therapy dog.

Amrita Bradley, Windsong Farm Providore hobby farmer, dental hygienist at Sale Hospital, and author of the recently published children’s book Who Are You and What Do You Do?, is currently completing training with her Kelpie Teak to become the first therapy dog to work in a public dental surgery in Gippsland.

Profits from Amrita Bradley’s recently published children’s book Who Are You and What Do You Do were dedicated to Teak’s therapy dog training. Photos: Zoe Askew

Teak was the impetus behind Ms Bradley’s book Who Are You and What Do You Do?, which follows baby goat Loki on his journey across Windsong Farm as he meets all the different animals, most of whom Amrita and her husband Andrew have rescued over the years.

“The book was to raise funds for Teak’s therapy dog training,” Ms Bradley said.

“Teak has now started that therapy dog training; we had to wait until she was mature enough to do it, which means that she had to have turned 12 months by the time the five-week training had finished.”

Teak and Ms Bradley are completing their therapy dog training online through Therapy Dogs Australia and are expected to finish in three weeks.

“Therapy Dogs Australia has very strong ethics around animal welfare and professionalism,” Ms Bradley said.

“It doesn’t mean the dog has to be perfect by any means, but the dog has to be under control and using the dog’s mistakes can be a really good teaching for a patient.

“For example, we are not talking about the dog being out of control, but if the dog does something they’re not meant to, that can be used as a teaching for a person like “Okay, so the dog stole some food out of the other dog’s bowl, what do you think would happen as a consequence?”, so they use the animal in animal-assisted activities to run parallels and teach kids possible consequences, desired behaviours, those sorts of things.

“From a dental point of view, I can use Teak more for comforting anxious kids and to demonstrate tooth brushing and to play with kids, so if the kids blow up a balloon, breathing out through their belly activating their parasympathetic nervous system, which will help them to relax as opposed to being anxious and we can turn that into a game where Teak can play with the balloon around the room type thing.”

Many studies have shown that petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol and can lower your heart rate and blood pressure.

“Stroking a dog or just having that warmth of a dog on you is really good for calming you down, and we can use those as a method of dealing with dental anxiety,” Ms Bradley said.

A 2022 study conducted in Switzerland suggests that dogs can even be good for our brains. Researchers say the results could improve the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapies for treating many conditions, including depression, dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Clinical studies on human-animal interactions found that not only can dogs serve as a source of comfort and support, but they can also help children with ADHD focus their attention and positively affect children with autism.

While therapy dogs are common in Gippsland, with dogs regularly visiting Wurruk Neighbourhood House, Bairnsdale Hospital and Briagolong Primary School, therapy dogs have yet to be utilised in the region’s public dental health sector.

“Therapy dogs aren’t new, but in public dental, it is,” Ms Bradley said.

“In private dental, they have got a therapy dog down in Warragul, but as far as public dental goes, this will be a first, and we are working with the hospital, Central Gippsland Health, to implement that with support from Dental Health Servies Victoria and the University of Melbourne.”

Amrita and Teak share a special bond – an important element when training and handling a therapy dog.

Teak’s therapy dog training is expected to be completed in early June, after which the brown-haired Kelpie will undergo specific environment training with the goal of working at the CGH dentist clinic by July.

“We do a whole day Monday online, online lectures, assessments for myself and then assessments for Teak,” Ms Bradley said.

“We video those assessments, send them in and get real-time feedback on them during a Zoom call, then we have the next week to work on the next set of milestones.

“After five weeks, Teak needs to be assessed on temperament and ability, and if she passes, she will be able to work.”

Therapy Dogs Australia trains about 100 dogs per year with their mission to assist in creating human-canine therapy teams by equipping people with the skills and confidence required to include their dogs in their daily practice in a manner that is safe and ethical for their dog and their clients.

Therapy Dogs Australia co-founder, head trainer, psychologist and clinic director Samantha King says therapy dogs need to display good manners and great listening skills when their handlers are communicating with them.

“The level of skill and training required for the dog and handler teams differs depending on their workplace setting,” Ms King said.

“Dentist dogs need to have a calm and confident disposition and be working very well with their handlers.

“The handlers need to remain committed to their dog’s training to ensure their safety in the workplace.

“Therapy Dogs in dental surgeries are still quite uncommon, especially as these are medical environments with sterile equipment being used – the teams need to be very well prepared and have good policies in place to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the dogs and their clients,” she said.

“We have trained between 5 to 8 therapy dogs for dental settings.”

Windsong Farm Providore’s dental surgery therapy dog in training, Teak.

Therapy dogs have a completely different type of job from service dogs. Their responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers.

Ms King says therapy dogs need to be confident, outgoing, difficult to offend and enjoy meeting new people regularly.

“They should be well-mannered and responsive to their handlers,” Ms King said.

“Handlers need to possess many of the same qualities as well as be quick thinkers and able to respond calmly in unexpected situations so that they can support both the dog and the service participant.

“Amrita and Teak are progressing very well through their training; they are a great team who are working well together.”

Ms King has worked in animal assisted therapy, incorporating the use of animals within a therapy session to achieve a specific goal, for 11 years, founding Therapy Dogs Australia in 2016 alongside her other business, Psychology & Animal Assisted Wellbeing, a multidisciplinary practice where all of the clinicians work with therapy dogs in Redcliffe, Queensland.

“There can be many benefits of involving a well-mannered and confident canine in a variety of human service settings,” Ms King said.

“One of the things we hear the most is that the presence of the dog can help people to feel comfortable in accessing the service, meaning that they are able to receive the health care or education they are in need of.

“It should be considered that not all people are comfortable around dogs which can be due to allergies, phobias or cultural differences,” she said.

“It is very important that the presence of a therapy dog also doesn’t exclude anyone from accessing a service – which is why it’s really important to have policies and procedures in place to accommodate for this.”

Ms King has also recently established an equine assisted therapy training business, Wild at Heart Horses.

Carol Batchelor, owner and sole trainer of Unified Canine, established to assist with dog training in Sale and surrounding areas, has offered to support Ms Bradley in Teak’s specific environment training upon completion of her therapy dog training.

Ms Bradley has already begun introducing Teak to dental practice characteristics at home to ensure the spirited Kelpie has the smoothest transition into the new environment.

“At the moment, it’s kind of fun because we’re just socialising Teak around walkers, children, dental noises, things that go up and down like a dental chair, vacuum cleaners, so suction noises,” Ms Bradley said.

“We play dental room noises in the car when we are travelling to and from places, and then we’re supplementing common things she will find in a dental clinic like the high-speed suction with a vacuum cleaner, the chair that goes up and down we sit with her on the back of the tractor on the carrier.

“So we are already starting to get her used to the dental environment even though she has never actually been in one just yet.”

Amrita and Teak are nearing the end of their therapy dog training.

Before Teak can begin working at Central Gippsland Health, consultation, planning, and approvals are required.

Ms Bradley expressed gratitude to the community for its assistance in Teak’s Therapy Dog training.

“It’s been a long haul to raise enough funds, and we couldn’t have made it to where we are now without the support of the community,” Ms Bradley said.

“Thank you to everyone who supported Teak’s Kickstarter campaign, purchased the book from our online shop, visited our stall at local community markets and festivals or purchased from a handful of local retailers in Latrobe Valley, Central Gippsland and East Gippsland.

“All profits have gone directly to funding Teak’s training, which will come full circle when she starts work assisting anxious dental patients.”