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The New Breed of Service Dog: Canine Caregivers for Dementia and Alzheimer’s Patients

In a way, some dogs are born for this type of role. Animals are non-judgmental by nature, so they are good therapists and companions for those with dementia because they provide support and unconditional love.
For both a therapy and a service dog, a lot of being chosen for the role has to do with his or her personality and temperament. It’s important that he or she follows basic commands like sit, stay, down and heel, and doesn’t nip, bite or jump on people. Without this foundation, a dog won’t be considered for progression to the next phase of more specialized training.
It’s also important for the dog to be unfazed by the frequent mood swings that can be common for dementia patients. This will be one of the first tests a dog must pass in order to be considered a good fit for working with this type of patient.
There are specialized training programs for therapy and service dogs. The animals must prove that they can react appropriately to the various scenarios that could unfold while working with a patient. Although they may vary slightly by program, most will include the following components:
  • Leash behavior on standard and extended lengths. The dog must be obedient on the type of leash that will be used by his or her handler, and also on a longer leash where there is more opportunity for distraction.
  • Willingness to visit with a patient. The dog must demonstrate mannerisms of being friendly, gentle and imperturbable.
  • Analysis of reactions to unplanned situations and distractions. For example, the dog may be tested by having a stranger approach waving his or her arms and shouting, or by a passerby dropping an item that makes a loud noise when it hits the ground.
  • Meeting other dogs. The dog must remain focused on his or her handler if another animal approaches.
  • Response to children. It’s essential that a dog behaves well around children, not only because the dog will likely encounter them while working, but because people with advanced stages of dementia may sometimes exhibit childlike behaviors.

How Companion Service Dogs Can Improve an Owner’s Life at Home

Victims of dementia and Alzheimer’s may struggle when trying to perform daily tasks for themselves as their disease progresses. Many people trying to support someone they love with this type of condition have turned to hiring round-the-clock care for the patient, but a specially-trained service dog may alleviate the need for other, more expensive types of assistance while also providing companionship and empowerment. 
The following resources provide valuable information on how a service dog can change the life of the patient with whom he or she lives:
One of the main tasks of a dementia service dog is to get the owner home when the command is given. The dog is also trained to remain with his or her owner and call for help by barking if the owner refuses to go home, which can happen with someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s if he or she gets confused. The dog also has a GPS tracker on his or her collar, which makes it easy for the owner’s family to locate the pair when needed.
The dogs are trained to prevent his or her owner from leaving the house unaccompanied. This is especially essential if the owner lives alone or stays at home unaccompanied some of the time, as may be the case of someone who lives with a working spouse.
Service dogs assist with daily tasks, from waking owners up in the morning, reminding them where their clothes are, and bringing medications to the owner in bite-proof packaging.
Live-at-home service dogs can provide both physical and emotional support. In addition to always lending a listening ear, these dogs can be helpful for physically supporting an owner who has trouble with balance issues, climbing and descending stairs, and rising and sitting.
A constant canine companion can drastically impact an owner’s overall emotional wellbeing. There are three main ways a dog can positively influence his or her owner’s mental state:
  1. Living with a trained dementia service dog can provide more independence for the patient. 
  2. The owner is instilled with a sense of self-reliance since he or she doesn’t have to rely on another person to help with daily tasks. This self-sufficiency can bring about a sense of confidence and improved mood. This can be a critical factor in warding off depression and anxiety, which can be side effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  3. A guide dog can encourage his or her owner to be more social, due to the nurturing relationship established between the owner and dog, and the fact that a patient is more likely to spend time outside of the house meeting new people with the guide dog’s assistance. An owner and their service dog have the same access rights to public places as someone without a service dog.