Pity the poor dentist.

Yes, you heard me, it's time to think about the way he feels about the way you feel about going to see him.

When he thinks about it -- never mind what you think -- he doesn't get that warm, wanted feeling.

"Basically," says psychology professor Robert Gatchel, with some understatement, "a great proportion of the population has quite a bit of fear concerning dentistry."

Basically, there are few things better designed to cut short a conversation than a discussion of dentistry among those whose knowledge of it begins and ends with somebody else's fist in their faces.

(Give me labor pains any day," announced one colleague -- and mother of two -- when the subject was broached.)

It's something dentists do worry about. On the spoonful-of-sugar theory they have, through the years tried to coddle and cajole patients with everything from laughing gas to lollipops to Librium to wall posters of bucolic scenes. One Hyattsville dentist uses magic tricks.

There are also the inevitable jokes -- usually bad -- occasionally some good gossip, even deliberately provocative political discussions (when you can't answer back because your mouth "ish full uh cotton") and the latest in jack hammers.)

But lollipops, you will remember, are not so hot for good checkups and pills can produce their own problems. So what's a poor dentist to do?

Some dentists in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, after worrying it over during a community-action meeting of the Southern Maryland Dental Society, have come up with a novel attempt to deal with fear of fillings or, as it might be termed, dentophobia.

The dentists, after considering various techniques, looked into some of the fear-of-flying seminars conducted by airlines. With a few toothsome modifications, they used those as a model and are about to embark on a series of seminars to help you learn how to love your dentist.

To set up the program they went to Dr. Gatchel, professor of medical psychology at the new Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda.

For what is believed to be the only program of its kind in the country, Gatchel has outlined two kinds of seminars. One will involve participants in group discussions; the second will use "systematic desensitization."

"Sometimes," says Gatchel, "just talking about an anxiety helps eliminate it. Many times patients cannot communicate their fears and anxieties to the dentist or dental assistant, so they say nothing and try to tolerate the pain. Then they leave the office and go through the pain process outside the office and subsequently, of course, they'll avoid that situation.

"The group discussions will permit participants to compare fears and anxieties and the different ways others have found effective in dealing with them.

"They'll discover that there's nothing abnormal about it, that it's a very common type of fear. That should produce more understanding and, therefore, an element of controlability."

The second group is the one modeled on the fear-of-flying program.

The actual steps in this training are, by and large secret -- not because of any mysterious happenings or inner revelations, but simply because the effect is changed if participants anticipate the steps.

As an example, Gatcher said, the program will begin with participants relaxing, and "we gradually introduce scenes of increasing anxiety. We ask them to imagine increasingly stressful situations."

After several sessions, the participants will, cognitively, get used to coping with stress. Eventually they will be able to cope with the anxiety under real conditions in the dentist's office. One of the additional benefits, says Gatchel, "is that the techniques they'll be learning they'll be able to utilize in other stressful situations."

It is all based, he points out, on the well-tested psychological premise that a person cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. The trick, then, is to trade relaxation for anxiety.

"So what we do," says Gatchel, "is teach a person how to relax in the face of a stressful event. It is a coping technique, training them to cope with dental anxiety."

The technique was developed in the 1950s and "has been used successfully -- there are literally hundreds of studies -- in dealing with a wide variety of phobias and fears," Gatchel says.

In addition, he is training dentists and dental assistants to serve as group leaders, principally "to demonstrate to participants that dentists are real persons and are very concerned with the feelings and anxiety states of their patients.

"Most of us have the stereotypic view of dentists as people who inflict pain. What we're trying to do is demonstrate that dentists are really very concerned about anxieties."

Also, these trained dentists will be able to take the techniques back to their offices and apply them to their own fearful patients.

However, the society so far does not have enough participants to get the courses underway. "All we need now," Gatchel says, "are some warm anxious bodies."

One of the problems is that the "call" for volunteers has gone out through dentists' offices and the real hardcore dentophobes, of course, wouldn't be caught dead in a dentist's office.

"Some people," say Dr. Eugene Colao, head of the Dental Society's seminar committee, "are so panicked that when they do get to the dentist it's so much less awful than they thought that they almost enjoy themselves."

Well, the seminars don't actually promise fun root canals, but they do offer hope for the fearful.

There will be no tuition charge to participants who complete the course and volunteers will be assigned randomly, either to the group discussion of desensitization seminar. Further information may be obtained from the Southern Maryland Medical Society, 9015 Rhode Island Ave., College Park, Md. 20704 or by calling 345-7763, weekdays between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.