Background Dentistry in Australia combines business and health care service, that is, the majority of patients pay money for tangible dental procedures such as fluoride applications, dental radiographs, dental fillings, crowns, and dentures among others. There is evidence that patients question dentists' behaviours and attitudes during a dental visit when those highly technical procedures are performed. However, little is known about how patients' experience dental care as a whole. This paper illustrates the findings from a qualitative study recently undertaken in general dental practice in Australia. It focuses on patients' experiences of dental care, particularly on the relationship between patients and dentists during the provision of preventive care and advice in general dental practices. Methods Seventeen patients were interviewed. Data analysis consisted of transcript coding, detailed memo writing, and data interpretation. Results Patients described their experiences when visiting dental practices with and without a structured preventive approach in place, together with the historical, biological, financial, psychosocial and habitual dimensions of their experience. Potential barriers that could hinder preventive activities as well as facilitators for prevention were also described. The offer of preventive dental care and advice was an amazing revelation for this group of patients as they realized that dentists could practice dentistry without having to "drill and fill" their teeth. All patients, regardless of the practice they came from or their level of clinical risk of developing dental caries, valued having a caring dentist who respected them and listened to their concerns without "blaming" them for their oral health status. These patients complied with and supported the preventive care options because they were being "treated as a person not as a patient" by their dentists. Patients valued dentists who made them aware of existing preventive options, educated them about how to maintain a healthy mouth and teeth, and supported and reassured them frequently during visits. Conclusions Patients valued having a supportive and caring dentist and a dedicated dental team. The experience of having a dedicated, supportive and caring dentist helped patients to take control of their own oral health. These dentists and dental teams produced profound changes in not just the oral health care routines of patients, but in the way patients thought about their own oral health and the role of dental professionals.