How Dogs Are Helping People with Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s service dogs are a relatively new concept, but they can make a positive difference to the lives of people diagnosed with this devastating disease.

Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that affects many of our seniors. In the US alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than six million people are living with this dreaded disease. Short-term memory loss, confusion, and an inability to navigate familiar surroundings are some of the signs. This progressive condition is extremely stressful for both patients and their caregivers. However, service dogs working alongside human caregivers are playing an important role in the lives of Alzheimer’s sufferers by helping improve their quality of life and doing simple tasks for them.

WHAT DO ALZHEIMER’S SERVICE DOGS DO?

Provide reminders to patients

Most dogs love jobs and can be trained to perform a number of chores, which makes them good candidates for helping people with memory issues. For someone in the earlier stages of the disease, an Alzheimer’s service dog can let her know when she’s left the oven on, for example.

Dogs also have a keen sense of time, which is very helpful for Alzheimer’s patients who often get confused about what time it is. If dinner is at 5:30, the dog will be at his bowl at 5:30 on the dot, reminding his person that it’s time to eat. This can subsequently remind her to eat her own dinner as well. A service dog can also let his person know when it’s time to take her medications. A signal from the dog to fill his water bowl can remind her to stay hydrated too, while brushing his coat or wiping his mouth after eating is a cue for the person to also comb her hair and wash her face.

Help patients find their way

An Alzheimer’s service dog can also help guide the patient through her environment, both indoors and out. Unlike guide dogs, which are trained to walk beside vision-impaired people to help them navigate the world, Alzheimer’s service dogs lead the way. A longer leash is used so the dog can walk in front of his person rather than directly by her side.

These dogs are trained to help people find their way around if they get confused or disoriented while out on a walk. By using the command “home”, the patient prompts the dog to find their way back, even if they’ve deviated from their usual route. In addition, a GPS collar allows a spouse or caregiver to track the pair if they’re late coming back. It can also be activated to make a sound the dog will be trained to interpret as “come home”. If there’s a problem such as serious agitation or a fall, the dog will bark for help.

Offer emotional calming and support

  • Many Alzheimer’s patients can become agitated and upset, especially when they’re confused or disoriented. An Alzheimer’s service dog is trained to use behavior interruption to help their person refocus.
  • Simply petting the dog can help calm agitation.
  • Companionship plays a big role. Thoughts don’t slip away as quickly once they’ve been spoken aloud, so talking to the dog can help, even if he can’t talk back.
  • An Alzheimer’s service dog can help reduce isolation and loneliness while providing the patient with exercise, purpose, and socialization. A morning walk can become an interactive experience as other walkers stop to ask about the dog’s name or breed. Also, when the dog is the center of attention in such a situation, it can give the patient a moment to collect her thoughts before responding to any questions. Alzheimer’s can cause thought-to-speech problems, so it can be difficult for patients to respond when someone asks a question or makes a comment.

Learning that a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is devastating. But service dogs especially trained to assist these patients with tasks, reminders and guidance can help improve their quality of life on several levels.

THE GIFT OF MEMORY

The following account shows how dogs can profoundly impact the lives of those with Alzheimer’s.

A woman took her husband to adult daycare so she could run some errands. When she returned to pick him up, she saw that a therapy group was visiting with their dogs.

“Look, Bob,” she said. “Let’s ask if you can pet them.”

“Oh, we already visited with Bob,” said one of the volunteers. “He told me what kind of dog you have, his name, and the tricks he knows. We had a nice talk.”

The woman began to cry. “Our dog passed away 20 years ago,” she explained. “Alzheimer’s has taken so much of Bob, I worried there was nothing left. If he remembers our dog, I know that somewhere deep inside, he’s still there.


Sandra Murphy lives in St Louis, Missouri. When she’s not writing, she works as a pet sitter.

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