Specially trained dementia service dogs are the super dogs of the companion world. Not just warm and fuzzy, they intuit the needs of those with cognitive decline.
All your mom wants is to be normal, independent, and a contributor; and all you want is for her to be safe, happy, and healthy.
But because she’s strong-spirited, in-home care isn’t a viable option, and we don’t have Rosie the robot from the Jetsons yet.
But what if our furry friends can help?
A trained dog will become a trusted companion that doesn’t judge but empowers your loved one to remain independent, confident, and very importantly, safe. As discussed on my website TogetherInThis.com: Is Your Loved One Enriched or Just Pacified?, these elements are instrumental to maintaining purpose, which may alleviate the need for medications – or a nonexistent robot.
The idea is to train dogs – retrievers, collies, shepherds, and Labradors – to be handled with a leash and not a harness (which is typical with guide dogs) to assist those with dementia. 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.
Dementia Dogs is a collaboration between Alzheimer Scotland, the Glasgow School of Art, Dogs for the Disabled, and Guide Dogs UK.
They are currently in the pilot stage of research.
Dog Wish, a non-profit in the Southern California town of Winchester, is actively training dogs for in-home dementia assistance.
I first became interested in Dog Wish when I read how founder Bob Taylor trained a dog to lick the client’s shoulder if the client forgot to wear their Exelon patch.
According to Bob, “Dogs are capable of rational, strategic thought processes.” Dog Wish leverages these abilities 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.
Combined with the dog’s inherent ability to read us on levels that we can barely understand (call it a sixth sense if you will) these skills provide a level of care unmatched by anyone or anything else. Their ability to protect us by helping us find our way home or warning us of an imminent anxiety attack is simply out of this world!
Bob also says, “The dogs can serve as a counterbalance to the mental and emotional effects of this disorder.” That’s a very important trait because as the needs of the individual change, the dog will compensate. This “counter-balance” is what allows everyone to breathe a little easier as mom continues to live at home.
Over the past 40 years, Bob Taylor has trained thousands of service dogs to assist police, search and rescue, as well as people with unique needs such as Alzheimer’s.
Bob explains that it’s not the breed that matters as much as finding a dog that works best for the client’s needs and personality.
Prior to identifying a dog, Dog Wish begins by evaluating the client’s needs and personality. If the person is unable to visit prior to training, Dog Wish works with the family to learn as much as possible. At this point, the ideal dog is identified and training begins.
Training is not about creating a guide-dog mentality but a protective mentality where the dog has concern for its handler. This is similar to how police dogs are trained.
Over the next several months, using the person’s scent from clothing, a bond between dog and handler is created even though the person is not present at any time. Due to the nature of dementia, these dogs must also be trained to adjust to the handler’s inability to properly handle them.
This extensive training takes approximately six months, sometimes longer, depending on the client’s needs. When training is completed, the dog and client (handler) are introduced at the facility. Due to the dog’s scent-focused training, bonding begins instantly. Over the next three to four days, dog and handler learn to work together under the guidance of Dog Wish.
A dog properly trained in dementia care is not inexpensive but when you compare the cost of in-home care or a memory care facility, the cost seems much more reasonable.
Part time in-home care (20 hours per week) will surpass $15,000 annually, and a good memory care facility can easily be $60,000 annually. Contrast that to the total cost of a service dog, which starts at around $15,000.
Spread the Word
Service dogs trained in dementia care are an underused resource. So let’s spread the word. The more we talk and ask for it, the more organizations will get on board and start training dogs to protect and enrich our loved one’s lives.
Do you know of any local organizations that train dogs in dementia care? Or do you have any experience with service dogs helping someone with dementia? Please share.
Mike Good is founder of Together in This, an online resource helping family caregivers succeed. To help you prepare for your love one’s future, be sure to grab his free 3 Free Tools Successful Caregivers Use to Get Their Ducks in a Row. You can also join him on Facebook.
For more info, click on Why Does Animal Therapy Work?
Other services offering some form of psychiatric service dog:
Heeling Allies Assistance Dogs. Click here
Wilderwood Service Dogs. Click here
If you feel like doing your own hunting, here is a long list of service dog centers around the U.S., some of which train psychiatric service dogs. Click Growing Up Wonder Dog