Over the years, our modern dog has taken on many roles in support of its human master. They are companions, security guards, members of the military, and assistance pets for those with physical disabilities. Most recently, dogs have shown promise in helping people with dementia stay involved in the world around them.
An Australian trial is underway to assess whether trained dogs can improve the lives of dementia patients. This follows a short trial in Scotland that was very successful and well received by the Scottish community. Dogs were trained as assistance dogs (they wake patients, encourage exercise, remind them to take medication, and act as icebreakers in social situations), intervention dogs (to help people with early signs of dementia maintain regular activities in their lives such as going for a walk) and facility dogs (visiting facilities to improve emotional health in residents). At this stage, the aptly named Dementia Dog Project is working on a model to have their program in place throughout the United Kingdom.
Assistance Dogs Australia and Hammond Care are evaluating ten dogs, each of which has been specifically trained to meet the individual needs of a patient. For example, one patient was frequently angry and irritable before their assistance dog joined their household. It's not uncommon for dementia sufferers to behave this way, and it's often a reason why family members feel they can no longer cope and move their loved one into an assisted living facility. This man's dog had been taught to drop a toy at his feet whenever he yelled. The result was that he stopped yelling and started playing, which changed the whole atmosphere in the home.
Another patient struggled to get out of bed in the morning. Their dog was trained to nudge and pull the blankets off him to encourage him to start his day. The trial's organizers are hoping to obtain further funding to train and supply more dogs to more people.
The idea of "dementia dogs" is not a new one. In 2003, an Israeli social worker and a dog trainer taught a Smooth Collie to work with a patient with Alzheimer's disease. This dog became very familiar with their pet parent's routine and habits. If he became confused or anxious when out and about, he just had to tell his dog to go home and the dog led him back to his house. It's easy to see how having the security of a canine companion offers more freedom and less social isolation to those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
There is a lot of training involved in producing a dementia dog. First, the dog needs to be trained. Starting when they are eight weeks old, the pups are socialized and taught basic obedience. They then enter their advanced training program at around twelve months of age; this program takes up to six months. The dogs are then matched with a patient, who undergoes instruction on how to work with his canine companion.
Assistance dogs are capable of learning as many as fifty different cues so they can be trained to perform specific tasks that are most beneficial to their pet parent. They work as part of a team with the other two members being the patient and their main caregiver, often their spouse.
There seems to be few limits to how dogs can be taught to help and support their pet parents. The training of dementia dogs is a new initiative that's changing the lives of dementia sufferers and their families for the better.