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Collies and cavities

Trained to sense stress, therapy dog puts dental patients at ease.

COURTESY PHOTO - Walter, 10, was a cattle dog before realizing his calling as a therapy dog. It’s a familiar fear: angled in the dentist’s chair, blue bib clipped to your chest, gums going numb as the drill begins to whir.

Disliking the dentist is almost a cultural cliché, but for many, it’s more than just dislike: according to one study, between 5 and 10 percent of people in the U.S. experience “dental phobia,” an anxiety so crippling it impacts their dental health. Even for people without an outright phobia, dental work can be stressful and disorienting.

Vaughn Tidwell, the owner of Tidwell Dental in Forest Grove, decided to approach the issue creatively. What’s more comforting, he thought, than a big, fluffy, friendly dog?

Enter Walter, Tidwell’s office dog, a half-Australian-shepherd, half-border-collie mix who’s been putting patients at ease for nearly 10 years. Anxious or fearful patients, regardless of age, can ask for Walter, who happily approaches and lays his head on their laps. Oftentimes they needn’t even ask — Walter already knows he’s needed.

NEWS-TIMES/TRIBUNE PHOTO: RYAN LACKEY - Walter hangs out in Dr. Vaughn Tidwell's dental office in Forest Grove, ready to comfort anxious patients.“People with anxiety, he just picks up on it,” said Sue Green, who manages the front office. “That’s the story I hear the most, that he just sensed a patient’s anxiety.”

From his bed in the hallway, for example, Walter suddenly got up last week and trotted over to one of the examination rooms, where Suzanne Borresen was undergoing a root canal. As the procedure wound down, Walter nudged his muzzle towards Borresen, who gave him a scratch on the head.

“I’ve been a patient here for 10 years, but I’m not a fan of dentistry,” Borresen said. “When Walter comes in and puts his head in your lap, it’s calming. He just has a soothing presence. He makes me almost look forward to coming here.”

It’s well-documented that animals, especially cats and dogs, can have positive effects on the stressed-out and anxious — both quantifiable effects, such as lowered blood pressure, and more ephemeral ones, such as feelings of peace and well-being.

Usually, the idea of a service dog is associated with people facing physical challenges, like blindness or paralysis. But service and therapy dogs often improve the quality of life for depressed or anxious patients, though it’s still rare to find them in doctors’ or dental offices.

Tidwell said he never adopted Walter, now age 10, with a plan to train him as a service dog. But like many vocations, Walter’s seemed to find him.

“He began as a pup for the family,” Tidwell explained. “We did high school rodeo at the time and he helped with the cattle pushing. That’s what he’s bred for.”

Walter proved a capable cattle dog but Tidwell soon noticed that Walter was even better with the kids than he was with the cows.

“He has this ability to sense stress,” said Tidwell. “He can smell it. Once I recognized that, I enrolled him in a special service training.”

Actually, he enrolled himself in training. Instead of just handing Walter over to a professional teacher, Tidwell himself was trained how to train Walter as a therapy dog, honing his natural sensitivity towards stressed and frazzled people. Not every dog is fit for that kind of work, Tidwell said. The dog needs a certain temperament, and even with Walter’s natural talent, it took time.

The training is long and complicated and “never really stops,” Tidwell said. But Walter “loves what he does. He’s very special. I’ve seen nothing like him. I take him on flights and he gets to fly next to me because he’s a service dog. He senses people who are anxious about the flight and he wants to go to them, put his head in their lap. I haven’t known any animals like that. He just loves the patients.”

Misty Palmer, a hygienist and self-described “dog person,” said many patients look forward to appointments just for Walter.

“It’s him they want to see,” Palmer said. “And we always introduce him to the kids. He’ll do a trick or two, put a treat on his nose. We make it fun.”

“Our patients will scold the staff sometimes,” said Staci Neal, a dental assistant, “because Walter will need a bath and we’ll schedule their appointments while he’s unavailable.

“I think all offices should have a service animal,” she said.

Walter bolsters the spirits of the staff, too, partly because a calm, relaxed patient means a smoother procedure.

Tidwell remembers an appointment with a young girl who had autism: “It was a difficult procedure. Sedation failed and she was very upset. But Walter came in and made her totally calm through her root canal.”

Borresen certainly agrees.

“Sitting there, petting him, you’re thinking, ‘I can get through this,’” she said. “He’s just a nice, furry presence.”