Most dog owners are aware of therapy dogs, who have been trained to help people with PTSD, seizure disorders, diabetes, autism and blindness. These canines are chosen for their calm dispositions and friendliness and are frequent and welcome visitors to nursing homes and hospitals.
But dogs can also bring comfort as well as real help, to dementia patients and their caregivers. A study in 2017 showed that therapy dog use with Alzheimer’s patients was increasing and also shows the dogs’ presence boosts patients’ socialization and sense of well-being.
Dementia assistance dogs require a long period of specialized training, up to two years, so the families of loved ones who have been recently diagnosed with dementia need to think about applying for a dog right away. Depending on the trainer, these dogs can prevent patients from leaving their homes if they are not accompanied by another person, they can get medications, and they can also awaken the patient each morning.
One of the most useful things about a dementia assistance dog is the dog’s ability to carry out what is known as behavior interruption. As all caregivers of patients with dementia know, many times if the patient is engaging in a disruptive or unsafe behavior, if the caregiver herself tries to intervene, this will often only escalate the situation.
By sending in the dog to interrupt this behavior, the patient will often become distracted as their attention and engagement goes to the canine and they will forget why they were agitated.
Caregivers of dementia patients face huge challenges, both emotional and physical, as they cope with the inevitable decline of their loved one. Understandably, they are looking for relief and for respite and may have unrealistic expectations about what a dementia assistance dog can do for them and their loved one.
Karen Shirk, the founder of the non-profit therapy training center 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, Ohio, cautions people that they must understand that they, the patient and the dog are a 3 member team. The caregiver, who has been trained to handle the dog, is always in charge, never the patient.
And patients must never be left alone with the dog. As Karen explains, “The dog is not able to keep them safe independently. An Alzheimer’s Assistance Dog is a tool to help caregivers build a better quality of life and living experience for their loved one with Alzheimer’s.“
Plus, the intensive and lengthy training period for dementia assistance dogs make them very expensive for most families, especially when they are already burdened with caregiving responsibilities. This is not an expense that is covered by insurance and most families rely on some type of fund raising to be able to afford the fee.
But for many families, the comfort, companionship and assistance these dogs provide for both patients and caregivers alike, is well worth the expense.