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Sit, stay, brush: Golden retriever helps teach kids oral hygiene habits in Kentucky

May 11, 2018

By Michelle Manchir

Dr. Matthew Riley with his dog Bennett
Good boy: Bennett, left, accompanies Dr. Matthew Riley to schools in Kentucky to help children learn about oral hygiene techniques.

Bowling Green, Ky. — A dentist and community educator, Dr. Matthew Riley knows elementary school students aren’t usually captivated by spiels on oral hygiene.

That’s why he brings his affable partner, a three-year-old golden retriever named Bennett, who helps the message sink in.

For the past year or so, Dr. Riley and Bennett have been making the rounds to grade schools in the south central parts of Kentucky where he lives and works. There, the two teach children about oral hygiene techniques. The highlight of the show occurs when Dr. Riley brushes Bennett’s teeth.

“He behaves so well and is so inviting to kids,” Dr. Riley said. “I get dog-specific toothpaste. It’s a way to make oral health and oral hygiene interesting and fun.”

Dr. Riley adopted Bennett while he as still in dental school at the University of Louisville School of Dentistry. On snow days, he found time to train the well-behaved boy, which has made the pup a trustworthy – and, yes, adorable – companion for the school programs. Bennett is close to receiving his certification as a therapy dog, Dr. Riley said, and in addition to the school programs also visits the assisted living facility where his mother works and makes regular appearances in Dr. Riley’s dental office.

An associate in Briarwood Dental in Bowling Green, Dr. Riley said he brings Bennett with him to the office when he knows a young patient with a big treatment plan ahead could use the extra comfort (and after he gets permission from the children’s parents or guardians.)

“We have a special harness I put him in, and then he knows he’s going somewhere fun,” Dr. Riley said. “He loves the attention.”

Dr. Riley, who entered private practice right after graduating from dental school in 2016, said visiting classrooms is one way to contribute to community health. He also serves as dental director for his local public health department.

Dr. Riley said he knows the K9 assistance is a little unorthodox, but he thinks having Bennett is a way to make the oral health lessons engaging. Often after visiting a school, Dr. Riley said he hears from parents of students who were eager to brush their teeth that night, citing Bennett’s endorsement.

“It’s hard to teach kids oral health,” he said. “Here you have something that’s fun and exciting that they can remember.”

The effort has drawn attention of media, which featured him on one of his school visits on the local TV news, which was picked up by CNN. The clip has been featured on local news channels throughout the country since then.

The media attention has made Bennett, and Dr. Riley, even more popular in southern Kentucky. Dr. Riley said he’s been getting more and more requests from schools to visit. Dr. Riley said he’s happy to take the requests and will fit in all the visits he can on his days off from practice.

“This allows me to get to those kids I might not otherwise see,” he said.