The eight-year-old boy had never been to the dentist, and he was afraid – so nervous, in fact, that he wouldn’t even sit down in a chair. “It was unusual,” says Dr. Adam Cramer of Cramer & Bond Dentistry. “We generally like to see children early, before they have any needs so we can integrate them and they can get used to the environment.”

Enter Rex the therapy dog. A mid-sized golden retriever, Rex came into the room and went straight to the boy. “That loosened the kid up so we could talk to him,” says Cramer. “We ended up having Rex right next to him the whole time. We were able to do the exam and the cleaning and give him high fives on the way out. Based on my experience, there’s no way we would have gotten anything done without Rex.”

therapy dog dentist
Dr. Cramer initially brought Rex to be a therapy dog for his daughter Ella and has now started bringing him to the office two days a week. Photo credit: Christie Marlatt Photography.

Such experiences are typical at Cramer & Bond Dentistry. On Mondays and Thursdays, Rex helps to calm anxious children, including those with special needs. “We have tons of examples where kids wouldn’t sit still or let us look in their mouth, let alone work on their teeth,” says Cramer. Rex has a stand next to the dental chair and will sit for either a few minutes or in some cases throughout an entire procedure. Studies have shown that petting a dog can help to lower blood pressure and having Rex nearby visibly calms patients. “He’s specifically bred and trained to be a therapy and service dog,” says Cramer.

Initially, Rex had just one focus: Cramer’s twelve-year-old daughter Ella. “She has some pretty severe mental disabilities because of Rett Syndrome,” says Cramer. “We got Rex about three years ago as a therapy dog for her.  He’s kind of her buddy. He allows her to be social when we’re out and about.”

With Ella at school during the day, Rex usually stayed home. That’s when Cramer had the idea to bring him into the dental office. “We started that several months ago and it’s been awesome,” he says. “We’ve been able to help a lot of patients, especially kids. Having a child with special needs myself, I enjoy being able to help children and adults who also have special needs. Now we have this extra tool to enable them to get through procedures.”

Rex can be particularly helpful with autistic children. “It changes their focus,” he explains. “I can think of several times when he took their attention off of what we were doing in the dental chair to allow us to do simple stuff. In some cases, maybe we could have gotten through it without him but it wouldn’t have been such a positive experience. Now it’s not like they can’t wait to go to the dentist, but they can’t wait to see Rex.”

therapy dog dentist
Rex will sit next to the dental chair so that patients can calm themselves by petting him. Photo credit: Christie Marlatt Photography.

Parents appreciate him as much as their kids do. “We had one kid who was getting a procedure done on a Tuesday (not a day that Rex is normally in the office) and his mom called to say they weren’t coming in unless Rex was there,” Cramer laughs. They brought him in.

Visiting the dentist remains the second greatest human fear, lesser than public speaking but greater than death. “Anything that we can do to make that better is important,” says Cramer.

Fear of dentists can create a downward spiral, leading adult patients to avoid care altogether. “They’ll wait until something hurts and go to the dentist. Then you’ve got a difficult situation, presented with a procedure that isn’t very fun,” he says. “Their mouth is a mess because they’ve neglected their care.”

Cramer went through extensive training to learn about IV sedation, and in some cases, he’ll put it to use for adults and children who are very fearful. “At that point, let’s just put you to sleep so we can get through the tough part. It’s something to get them through that initial therapy,” he explains. “I like to use Rex to wean them off the sedation and integrate them into regular care.”

therapy dog dentist
Rex is a specially trained golden retriever who works with children and adults to calm their fears at Cramer & Bond Dentistry. Photo credit: Christie Marlatt Photography.

Although assisting fearful patients is more work, Cramer says it’s worth it. “Treating people with dental fears is probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in dentistry,” he says.

Rex’s presence has been a plus, both for the entire office and for the dog himself. “Rex likes it because he gets to do something during the day,” says Cramer. “Having him around just kind of lightens the mood. It’s a positive influence on the whole team.”

As a dog person, Cramer has heard a lot about different uses for therapy dogs, including how the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office uses dogs to work with children who’ve been victims of abuse. “You hear so much about dogs and their ability to calm people,” he says. “For a dentist’s office, really it just makes sense.”

To learn more about Cramer & Bond visit www.atlasdentistry.com/tumwater or call 360-799-5166.

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