How Dogs Help People with Alzheimer’s or Dementia

Reviewed By Julie •  Updated: 07/20/20 •  11 min read
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More and more people in the US are dealing with a debilitating health issue called Alzheimer’s. In fact, there are over 5 million Americans living with this disease right now. While there are many treatments available for this condition, one therapy has been found to be very helpful. This relatively new therapy is using dogs purposely trained to work with Alzheimer’s patients.

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In today’s article, we’ll take a look at what Alzheimer’s is, and how dogs are starting to be used to help Alzheimer’s patients.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is one of the most common forms of dementia and it takes a heartbreaking toll on the person who has it, as well as the person’s spouse and family. Alzheimer’s causes a progressive decline in the ability to think, in social and behavioral skills, and makes it difficult for a person to care for themselves.

Alzheimer’s is a process that involves the degeneration of brain cells, leading to cell death. This is an incurable condition, which is progressive. This means the condition gradually worsens over time. The process will cause degeneration at faster rates in some, while others have a long process of degeneration over time.

While this condition may develop as people become older, this is not a normal symptom of old age. This is a disease process that develops in some people, but not in others.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s can include the following:

The disease process with Alzheimer’s is distressing both for the patient and their family. In the beginning, the disease may be mild, but over time it becomes more severe. There are four stages to this disease:

As the disease progresses, the patient will need increasing care, which usually falls on the spouse or family of the patient. The caregivers may need to deal with all types of emotions in the loved one including frustration, fear, anxiety, depression, anger, aggression, and more. These emotions sometimes develop due to the increasingly difficulties the patient must deal with. It’s a scary process to go through Alzheimer’s.

For this reason, researchers started working with dogs to help Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

Alzheimer’s Therapy Dog

The first people to consider using dogs to help Alzheimer’s patients were Daphna Golan-Shemesh, an Israeli social worker experienced with Alzheimer’s, and Yariv Ben-Yosef, a professional dog trainer. They came together and developed the idea of training dogs to help people who had dementia. The idea was the dogs should help dementia patients feel better, but that the dogs would also help their patients with daily activities. In other words, the dogs would become caregivers for their pet parents.

From there, in 2012 Alzheimer’s Scotland was able to obtain funding to study the possibility of using dogs especially trained to help dementia patients. Out of this the Dementia Dog project came into being. The Dementia Dog project was developed to determine if dogs could be trained as service dogs for patients with dementia, including Alzheimer’s. The project did show that dogs can be trained to help these patients.

Known as dementia service dogs, these wonderful fur babies go through an intensive 2-year training program before being placed with their human. There are also dogs that are trained to provide therapy to dementia patients. Training includes being able to deal with the mood swings that can be common in some dementia patients.

In addition, training to become a dementia service or therapy dog includes:

Leash behavior: dogs must learn to be obedient when on the type of leash that will be used by their pet parent. They must also learn to behave properly when the leash is longer (they will face increased distractions on the longer leash).

Must enjoy being with patients: a dog must be willing to be friendly, gentle, and relaxed when visiting patients.

Must be unfazed by unexpected situations and distractions: a dog must be able to cope if a stranger approaches and is shouting, or if someone passing by drops something that makes a loud noise.

Dealing with other dogs: the dog must remain focused on their pet parent, even if another animal comes up to them.

Must deal well with kids: the dog must be well-behaved around kids. This is because the dog will most certainly come into contact with kids when out and about with their pet parent. In addition, many people who develop dementia may have grandkids. The other issue is that the pet parent who has dementia may also act like a child (this is normal in the later stages of the disease).

A dog for Alzheimer’s patients must have be easy-going, obedient, and not jump, bite, or nip. Dogs who are not able to meet these requirements are not allowed into a training program.

Do Dogs Help Dementia Patients? 

Yes, dementia service dogs can make a huge difference in the quality of life for dementia patients, and even their caregivers. Dogs trained to help dementia patients can be taught to help them with many of their daily activities.

Daily activities may include helping their pet parents wake up in the morning, helping them to find their clothes, bring medications to their pet parent and more.

Dementia service dogs are also trained to keep their pet parent from the leaving the house alone. This is done for patients who live alone or who may be at home alone a good part of the day if a spouse needs to work. In fact, some dogs wear a GPS chip in their collar. If their pet parent happens to leave the house, the dog will go with them. If the pet parent becomes lost, and the dog isn’t able to get them back home, the GPS will help loved ones and authorities to find the patient. The dog will stay with the patient the entire time.

Another way dementia service dogs help their pet parents is by giving them physical and emotional support. For instance, the dog may help their pet parent with balance issues, going up and down stairs, and more.

In addition, a trained service dog can help improve a dementia patient’s overall wellbeing including:

Gives patient more independence: the dementia service dog helps the patient be more independent, and with this feeling of self-reliance, the patient feels better about themselves, and that they can still take care of themselves.

Increased confidence: with the ability to be more independent, the dementia patient may also have increase confidence with their dementia service dog’s assistance.

Improved mood: being more independent and have more self-confidence also work to improve mood. A dementia service dog can help keep depression and anxiety under control. Dementia patients are also less lonely when they have a service dog.

Increased socialization: if a dementia patient is in a better mood and feeling more self-confident, they may choose to be more social. With a dementia service dog, the patients feels better about being outside, participating in social events with their friends, and more.

Therapy dogs can even help provide help for patients who live in assisted living facilities. Therapy dogs can help calm dementia patients who are feeling anxious or angry, they can also help patients reconnect with the world. Some patients will talk, smile and enjoy their time with the therapy dog immensely.

Best Dog Breed for Dementia Patients

You may be wondering if there’s a specific breed that makes the best dementia service dog. The short answer is that the breed isn’t important. Instead, training programs look for dogs that fit with specific dementia patients and their needs.

This process usually starts by evaluating the patient, their personality and their needs. Sometimes, if the patient is able, they will visit the training facility before a dog’s chosen. If that isn’t possible, the training facility will work closely with the family to learn about the dementia patient. After this, the right dog will be chosen and then the dog’s training will start.

These dogs are trained in a slightly different manner than a guide dog. Dementia service dogs are trained to protect their pet parents. Training will take several months and usually involves the dog becoming with the dementia patient’s scent on clothing and more. The dog will also be trained how to deal with their pet parent’s disease progression, and how to react properly to handle these changes.

Once the training is finished, the pet parent and dog are introduced. The dog’s bond with their pet parent starts immediately, as the dog is familiar with the person’s scent. Then over the next few days, a handler works with the patient and dog helping them learn how to work together.

Taking Dog Away from Alzheimer’s Patient

You may wonder about the necessity of taking the dog away from a dementia patient at some point. This is not recommended, unless absolutely necessary. The reason is because the dog and the patient have become very dependent on one another, and the dog may not easily bond with another person.

If the dementia patient must enter an assisted living facility, you’ll be happy to learn that many of these facilities have begun accepting the patients and their service dogs. These facilities are often pet-friendly and are happy to have a well-trained dog live there.

It can happen the dementia may make it difficult for a patient to properly take care of their dementia service dog. However, many assisted living facilities also have programs that will take care of the dog (feeding, etc.) for the patient. So, if the facility doesn’t have such a program, discuss all the benefits a trained service dog can bring to their facility, including enjoyment for the residents.

Trained dementia service dogs may be a great addition to your loved one’s therapy. These dogs are highly trained to provide assistance, keep their pet parent save, and most of all be an emotional support them at time of life that can be difficult to adjust to.

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Julie is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she studied Animal science. Though contrary to the opinion of her parents she was meant to study pharmacy, but she was in love with animals especially cats. Julie currently works in an animal research institute (NGO) in California and loves spending quality time with her little cat. She has the passion for making research about animals, how they survive, their way of life among others and publishes it. Julie is also happily married with two kids.

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