How Trained Service Dogs Can Help Seniors With Dementia
Service dogs are not only trained to assist people with physical disabilities but are also taught how to help people with dementia.
Training dementia service dogs is a long and rigorous process, taking up to a year or more as these dogs are taught to perform specific tasks while bonding with potential owners.
Since assistance dogs must have the right kind of temperament (loyal, obedient, highly intelligent), certain breeds are favored as service dogs for an individual with Alzheimer’s or other dementia disorders.
- Border Collies
- Labrador Retrievers
- German Shepherds,
- Golden Retrievers
Service Dogs for Dementia
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe the loss of mental abilities serious enough to prevent those affected from performing everyday activities.
Caused by physical changes and/or deterioration of the brain, dementia may be attributed to one or more of the following brain disorders:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Vascular dementia
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Huntington’s disease
Dementia is categorized into clinical types of dementia because each disease affects the brain’s chemistry and gray/white matter differently. For example, Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder caused by one defect on chromosome four.
This gene produces an abnormal protein called “huntingtin” that induces cognitive decline and involuntary movements. In Alzheimer’s patients, the presence of plaques and tangles in the brain that interferes with signaling among neurons is responsible for the memory, behavioral and cognitive issues affecting them.
What Are Dementia Service Dogs Trained To Do
Responding to sound triggers in their owner’s home is just one of the many useful tasks dementia service dogs are trained to do.
Electronic timers emitting different sounding buzzing or ringing alerts dogs to retrieve and take medications to their owners.
Notes are placed inside medicine bags that remind the person when to take their medication.
Another type of tone may instruct a trained dog to take its owner to the bathroom every few hours.
Because dementia patients often become confused outside their home, dementia service dogs are trained to respond to commands like “home” or “neighbor” to lead owners back to recognizable environments.
Other services dogs are trained to do to help dementia patients remain self-sufficient and safely independent include:
- Turning on light switches
- Alert owners to important sounds (tornado sirens, home fire alarms, ringing telephones)
- Picking up items their owners have dropped
- Taking cell phones to owners who may have fallen or felt ill
- Waking up owners who may tend to sleep too much
- Preventing strangers from approaching owners too closely
- Pulling wheelchairs for short durations when necessary
- Keeping owners on walking paths, sidewalks, and other safe walking areas
- Stopping dementia patients from wandering out of their home (dogs are trained to recognize the scent of owners so they can immediately identify them from other people)
Dementia service dogs also provide love, companionship and a sense of comfort to people with symptoms of cognitive decline. They can help ease distressing signs of sundowning that occurs at night.
Sundowning is a term used to describe behaviors common to dementia patients at the end of the day, such as increasing confusion, wandering, irritability, and pacing.
Service dogs trained to help those with dementia seem to calm them by remaining by their side, guiding them back to environments they recognize and are accustomed to.
Training Service Dogs to Meet Specific Needs
The needs of dementia patients vary according to the severity of their condition. For example, people in early-stage dementia may only have memory problems but not be physically incapable of doing things.
They may just require dogs that can help them remember to take medications, take care of hygiene issues or find their way through large department stores.
Alternately, dementia patients who must use walkers or wheelchairs for ambulatory purposes need dogs trained to assist them in performing physical tasks as well as tasks involving cognition and memory.