Nobody is excited to visit the dentist's office.

The very thought of going to the dentist's office can send just about anyone into a panic attack. There is an individual who has made it his mission to relieve some of the fear of a routine checkup.

Hugo, a maltipoo, is afraid of just about everything except for humans. When someone visits Dr. Reza Moghbel's office, Hugo is the first to greet them. When patients are getting a cleaning, a root canal or before surgery, Hugo is there to be pet and to relax them.

"He's the most popular in the office and I'm the least popular," Moghbel said.

Hugo originally was an emotional support dog for Parisa Reyhanian, the business manager for Moghbel's office, but gradually became a therapy dog for the office. His friendly demeanor is what makes him the ideal dog to help out during stressful scenarios.

"With the patient's permission, Hugo will jump on their lap and so long as he is pet, he'll stay for hours," Reyhanian said. "Patients start to focus on him instead of the procedure."

Hugo is just one of the many therapy dogs working in Kern County.

Therapy dogs volunteer everywhere from schools to juvenile halls to hospices with the goal to improve people's lives. Not to be confused with service dogs, therapy dogs aren't trained to assist people with disabilities. Therapy dogs don't have the same access privileges in public places and have to be invited to visit, said Torie Beck, program coordinator with Miracle Mutts, an American Kennel Club-certified program offered by Marley's Mutts that trains dogs to be therapy dogs. 

Beck said that the number of therapy dogs has risen in recent years.

"We have high-stress lives," Beck said. "Life is full of high-stress situations and dogs help relieve some of that. People in Bakersfield care about their animals. They are seen as part of our families."

In a 2019 review in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, 4 million people in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand were surveyed to reveal that dog ownership was associated with a 24 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.

Miracle Mutts aims to creative positive experiences with trained dogs. The organization takes canines through up to 50 public visits to get used to working with people. Those outings include Barks and Books, where dogs serve as nonjudgmental reading partners for children to read aloud to at Beale Memorial and other county libraries.

"A therapy dog goes into the community to make people happy," said volunteer Bernadette Ferguson. "They have to be really nice and have to enjoy the work to be a therapy dog."

Ferguson brings her two Pomeranians to different programs, each with different audiences but her dogs always know how to handle being the life of a gathering. It can take up to a year for a dog to be certified to work as a therapy dog, she said.

"Each setting is different," Ferguson said. "My girls are well-liked at retirement communities. It's great to see them light up when they get to hold them."

Some therapy dogs have an almost celebritylike status. Helix, a pit bull, has garnished a following on his Instagram page, The Helix Project. Owner Mary Higgins adopted him after he was in a program in North Kern State Prison to become a certified Canine Good Citizen. Now, Helix visits juvenile hall twice a month and works as a therapy dog wherever he is needed. The Helix Project is, in part, an excuse to show the dog in increasingly adorable situations and it also serves as a way to dispel any misconceptions there could be about the nature of pit bulls. 

"The kids at the juvenile hall think it's so cool that a pit bull is there," Higgins said. "They ask if he would protect me from people. I laugh and say, 'No, because he's so sweet.' You look inside his eyes and they are just full of love."

Bowen West can be reached at 661-395-7660.

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