Most of us are aware of service dogs, especially guide dogs for people with sight impairment, because we see them around our communities. These dogs are not pets. They are working animals and are allowed wherever the person they serve goes.
Increasingly, other service dogs are being trained to help people with impaired hearing, people who have grand mal seizures and people with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
With more than five million people in the U.S. alone coping with the effects of Alzheimer’s, any attempt to help people with dementia have a better quality of life is welcome. So why not have trained service dogs for people with dementia?
According to an article by Mike Good, Founder of Together In This, the concept appears to have originated in Israel, where social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh and dog trainer Yariv Ben-Yosef partnered more than a decade ago. Since then, a handful of organizations such as Dementia Dogs in Scotland and Dog Wish in the U.S. have emerged.
The Dementia Dog project started as a Glascow School of Art service design project. The project attracted the attention of the Design Council through the Living Well With Dementia Challenge. This is a joint effort between Alzheimer Scotland, the Glascow School of Art, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs U.K.
After successful completion of the first funding stage, Dementia Dog has started its pilot phase and currently has two qualified dementia assistance dogs placed with individuals who have dementia and their caregivers. According to the organization, the pilot phase runs for one year, but the dog will be supported to remain with the client for its full working life, where appropriate.
Good also interviewed the people who own Dog Wish, which is a southern California non-profit that is also currently in the pilot stage of research. Dog Wish is actively training dogs for in-home dementia assistance. Good says that a Dog Wish Alzheimer’s Service Dog is trained to perform functions that are necessary for the safety, wellbeing and ability to function of a person living with Dementia.
Richard Besdine, MD, Director of the Center for Gerontology and Health Care Research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and Jason Karlawish, MD, Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine told Good:
"In today’s world of fast cures and pharmaceutical fixes, Alzheimer’s remains among the most devastating - and feared - diagnoses. In a recent survey, Alzheimer’s was the second most feared disease among American adults, behind only cancer. Dementia is also documented as the most costly disability in the world. The cost of a Dog Wish Dementia Service K9 Dog is only that of one to two months in an Assisted Living Facility and their ability to keep your loved one safe, happy, and function able is unmatched by any other prescribed program or medical treatment in the world."
Good writes in his article "Dementia Dogs, in-home care and street guide" that he first became interested in Dog Wish when he read how founder Bob Taylor trained a dog to lick the client’s shoulder if the client forgot to wear his Exelon patch.
According to Good, Dog Wish is training dogs to provide the most value to someone with dementia. This means keeping the person as comfortable as possible and staying socially oriented and connected to friends and family. The dogs also contribute to helping the person with Alzheimer’s disease maintain as much of his or her normal daily routine as can be reasonably expected.
Good writes, "Dogs are capable of rational, strategic thought processes"Dog Wish works with this natural ability so that the dogs respond to non-verbal cues. This allows the dogs to understand and respond to the handler’s intentions or forgetfulness without commands."
Taylor told Good that, "The dogs can serve as a counterbalance to the mental and emotional effects of this disorder [Alzheimer’s]."
Considering the fact that numerous studies have shown how the comfort of pets can enhance the lives of elders by easing loneliness and providing non-judgmental companionship, the idea of having a service dog seems extremely appealing.
While these service animals are not pets they are companions in best sense of the word. If a service dog could keep a person with dementia independent longer, these companies who are training them deserve a chance to try the animals out in more homes. Naturally, as with most Alzheimer’s projects, trainers are in need of financial assistance.
There’s no one answer for everyone who develops dementia, however until a cure is found for this disease we need to keep searching for ways to improve the lives of those who must live with it. In my opinion, providing service animals for people with dementia is a concept that needs much more attention than it’s receiving.
Good, M. (2014) DEMENTIA DOGS, in-home care and street guide. Retrieved from http://alzlive.com/resources/companions/dementia-dogs-in-home-care-and-street-guide/
Dementia Dog: Can Dogs Make a Difference in Dementia Care? Retrieved from http://www.dementiadog.org/
Dog Wish: Transforming Lives. Retrieved from http://www.dementiadog.org/
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.