‘Balto can change a child’: Certified therapy dog lends comforting paw to kids at Brecksville dentist’s office

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BRECKSVILLE, Ohio -- While he needed three cavities filled, Landon Mitchell, 7, woke up Tuesday actually excited to go to the dentist.

That's because greeting him at the dentist's office door was a 10-pound dog named Balto, who made no haste getting comfortable on the little boy's chest while they waited for his procedure.

"I've always wanted a dog," said Landon. "So when I come here, Balto is right with me, and I like being by dogs."

Balto, a 5-year-old Bishon-Maltese mix, is a certified therapy dog, trained to help kids like Mitchell relax and stay comfortable during what can be an anxious time. He's been to obedience school and nearly a year of additional training and testing to become a therapy dog and to not react loud noises and other certain stimuli.

Pediatric dentist Dr. Jennifer Bryk Hechko said she got Balto involved when she first opened Brecksville Kids Dentistry in May 2017. He actually belongs to her aunt, and her father-in-law , Paul Hechko, is Balto's handler.

"We have so many kids that come in, and they have anxiety and special needs...and it really transforms the patient," said office manager Courtney Margo. "It really transforms the patient. It's amazing, the result. Just having Balto can change a child."

Balto comes to the office with his handler three days a week. Hechko said when a child arrives at the office, Balto is there to meet them. The child has the choice to have Balto in the room with them during their check-up or procedure. If they decide to have company, Balto settles on their lap or chest so they have something to distract them from what's happening in their mouth.

"He knows exactly what he needs to do," said Paul. "So there's actually not that much work for me. He knows pretty much what to do, and usually if the doctor turns off the light, he knows the procedure is over and just gets up. If they're a little edgy and iffy, he just gets up there...and they're not as tense."

Hechko said a  lot of it has to do with Balto's size and laid back attitude. And as far as working around him?

"We've gotten accustomed to Balto getting his face up in the action," she said. "Balto is great not only for the kids, but for all of us. He brings great joy to us every day, but I think he brings a lot of joy to the parents, too."

Hechko said Balto could help out in the child dentistry industry in general.

She said there are a few offices in the area that do have dogs meant to help adults but not that are specific to helping children.  Hechko said she, along with another veterinarian, are in the process of formulating a research project on the human-animal bond and plans to document the effects Balto has on children and how good the interaction is for him.

"It's a great thing for the dogs and for the patients," she said.

Hechko said Balto has brought a lot of comfort to everyone involved in her practice.

"The human animal bond is one of the strongest bonds in the whole world," she said. "And we see that every day at my husband's animal hospital, we see it here at my dental practice. I have a whole wall of thank you letters and one of the most impressive is, one of my special needs patients drew a Christmas card for Balto, and she spent hours on it her mom said. I didn't get a Christmas card, but Balto did."

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