Alzheimer’s Assistance Dogs…Genius!

Assistance and therapy dogs provide a range of services and they have been increasing steadily over the past few decades.  Now, canine services can add Alzheimer’s and dementia assistance to their list of skills.  We are all familiar with guide dogs for the blind and some of us are aware of hearing assistance dogs and dogs that provide help for people with limited mobility but we are only just becoming aware of the fact that dogs provide help for those suffering from mental problems, thanks to media coverage of the U. S. Congress funded study conducted to understand how effective assistance dogs are for veterans of war suffering from PTSD.
People living in developed countries are living longer due to the effectiveness of contemporary healthcare and higher nutritional standards but a major problem with the elderly is the decline of memory and cognitive ability associated with Alzheimer’s and other various forms of dementia.  It is estimated that around 15% of people in the United States who are older than 65 will suffer some form of dementia with an additional 10% who will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease which amounts to around 5.5 million people.
There is no sudden onset in most forms of dementia and people can still have useful, functional, and somewhat independent lives in the beginning and middle stages of the disease if they have adequate assistance and support services in place, however, there are intermittent problems associated with the early stages of memory loss and diminishing cognitive abilities.  Dementia sufferers can forget to take their medications or to eat.  They get lost easily and cannot find their way home.  These experiences leave them feeling frustrated, isolated, angry, and feeling helpless.  They begin to feel they are a prisoner in their own home and depend completely on the assistance of others to allow them to go outside.
In the past few years, projects have been put into place to train dogs to assist people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Unlike guide dogs for the blind, these dogs do not work on a harness but on a six-foot leash in order to be in front of the person to actually lead them in the correct direction.  When the order “Home” is given, the dementia assistance dog’s main task is to get his charge home.  If the patient forgets to give the home order or wanders far from the house and into unfamiliar areas, caretakers can activate an electronic GPS navigation device installed on the dog’s collar which, not only locates the missing pair, but emits a recognizable tone which the dog interprets as an alternative command to lead his patient home.  If for some reason the patient is not able to accompany the dog home, the dog is trained to stay with him and start barking to call attention to the situation.  Should the patient wander from the house without his assistance dog, the dog is trained to track him by scent.
Because dogs love predictability and routine, this forms the base of training for dementia assistant dogs.  They are trained to assist their charge through the day, to respond to other sound triggers in the home and to trip an alarm in the house should the patient fall and not get up within a reasonable period of time or if they hear a choking sound.  But just as important, these therapy dogs offer companionship and friendship for their owner.  They help to maintain a meaningful daily routine which adds quality of life and by walking their dog daily, they promote exercise and encourage social interaction between their patient and other people.  These positive social interactions reduce loneliness and isolation in the dementia patient.  Being out and about with their dog provides the patient with a sense of independence reducing feelings of helplessness and dependency which can led to depression which Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers often encounter.
It’s just amazing how much a dog can do and still look so cute!