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

There are approximately 5.3 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and millions more with some other form of dementia. New advancements are being made every year in the medical field to treat these conditions medically, but there are also studies behind a new form of treatment that supports the perks a “doctor” of the four-legged kind provides.

Service dogs have long been used to help humans with disabilities ranging from blindness, deafness, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. There is an International Assistance Dog Week to celebrate the work of these devoted animals. And now the emotional and physical benefits of pet ownership are being demonstrated in a new way by helping people who need the comfort and support of a furry friend at a critical turning point in their lives, specifically those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

The following guide includes information about the benefits a service or therapy dog can provide to those enduring some form of dementia. You will find how a patient’s quality of life can be improved by this kind of animal, whether he or she has a one-on-one relationship with a trained canine companion or receives visits from a therapy dog. You will also find facts about the history and research conducted in support of these service animals, details into their comprehensive training, and resources to find an animal to match your needs or those of someone you care about. If you have been searching for an effective way to support a loved one with dementia, a canine caregiver may be an ideal solution.


History and Research Supporting Assistance Dogs

Dogs have been man’s best friend for thousands of years, dating back to when prehistoric humans domesticated wolves and later dogs into becoming their confidantes. Dogs have also been trained for centuries to assist humans with special needs. The first evidence of guide dogs for the disabled is a fresco depicting a blind man being led by a dog, which was discovered amid the ruins of Herculaneium, an ancient Roman city, and dates back to the first century A.D.

Israeli social worker Dafna Golan-Shemesh, who spent her career working with Alzheimer’s patients, and her partner Yariv Ben Yosef, a dog trainer, were the first to come up with the concept of guide dogs for those suffering from degenerative brain disease. They formed a team of medical and technical experts to develop a training program for what they called the Alzheimer’s Aid Dog, a guide dog that was suited to help with the specific needs of a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient.

In more recent years, a team at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland created the Dementia Dog Project to further explore the benefits a guide dog unique to dementia patients may offer, where potential pooch candidates were chosen to take a test to see if they were qualified to be assistance dogs. Those who passed were placed with families they matched with based on personality traits of the dogs and prospective owners. The research is still in progress, and the dogs remain with their families, where one member has some form of dementia. The families feel they are seeing improvements in their lives as a result of their canine companion.


What Does It Take to be a Certified Service or Therapy Assistance Dog for Dementia Patients?

Dementia affects the brain in a way that makes it difficult for sufferers to remember things, events or people in the long- or short-term. Although memory loss can be an early indicator of the illness, the trait itself doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has the disorder. Dementia is characterized by symptoms including language, object recognition, and planning and organization difficulties, as well as severe memory impairment. Those with Alzheimer’s disease also suffer from these symptoms, which can progressively worsen over time and make it difficult for patients to live their daily lives without some form of assistance. There are two ways a dog can help dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, either as a visiting therapy dog or as a companion service dog who lives full-time with the patient.The following resources provide helpful information on the kind of training required for a dog to help in either capacity.

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:

  • Living with a trained dementia service dog can provide more independence for the patient. 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.
  • 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 his or her service dog have the same access rights to public places as someone without a service dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects those with disabilities who use service dogs, and since dementia is considered a mental illness, these patients are covered under this act. This guide outlines specific guidelines for and rights of guide, hearing and service dogs and their owners for each state.


The Benefits Therapy Dog Aides Provide to Patients in Assisted-Living Facilities

Many assisted-living facilities now work with trained handlers to offer therapy animal visits to their patients. The following resources offer information on the many advantages a therapy dog may provide to the residents of long-term care homes.

Therapy dogs can be beneficial for dementia patients because, according to Lori Goodcuff, director of the Alzheimer’s Companion Respite Program at the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation, “In the later stages of the disease, it’s important to work with as many senses as we can, and being able to pet dogs is tactile and cognitively stimulating.”

Therapy dogs have been shown to reignite the interest of a patient in the world around them. Some patients have even smiled, spoken or taken a genuine interest for the first time in years upon meeting or getting to know a therapy dog.

A therapy dog can invoke happy, familiar memories to a patient who may feel that his or her world is slowly changing into something unrecognizable. Many people living with dementia who are receiving full-time care in a nursing home long for the comfort of places, things and people they once knew, and therapy dogs can remind them of the pets they once had.

Dogs are born listeners. Especially for patients who may be in the later stages of the disease and who are having extreme memory difficulties, therapy dogs can be an excellent source of comfort. Dr. Mara Baun, DNSc., professor and associate dean for research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing, pointed out, “It matters little to a pet if the person’s body has deteriorated or if the same stories are repeated over and over.”

A resident therapy dog – one who lives at or frequently visits a facility full-time – can be a meaningful way for residents to come together and care for the creature. Studies have shown that the effects of a resident therapy dog on patients can be significant in reducing behavioral issues. A study by Purdue University also indicated that having a resident pet also improves nutrition among patients by increasing nutritional intake, which may be credited to the improved mood the animal brings to patients.

Pets can ease the symptoms of “Sundowners Syndrome,” a condition that typically occurs in the evening where sufferers get confused and agitated by nightly routines. It can be difficult for caretakers in assisted-living facilities to find ways of soothing these patients, but therapy dogs have a way of instilling a sense of calm in them.


Resources for Finding a Care Dog

There are many resources for finding a home-based companion service dog or a therapy dog that can visit groups or individuals at assisted-living facilities. Additionally, there are many resources to assist those who would like to get a certification for their pet to become a licensed therapy dog. The following list provides useful information on some of the national organizations that can help you in your search. For more information on what is available to you locally, you are encouraged to reach out to your local ASPCA or Human Society chapter.

Pets for the Elderly is a public charity that provides companion pets to senior individuals.

Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations that helps individuals find a dog to match his or her needs.

Alliance of Therapy Dogs is a national therapy dog registry with over 14,000 members across North America, and can assist those in certifying their potential therapy dog.

Pet Partners provides trained handlers and their pets to facilities looking to incorporate therapy animals into their programs. The website also provides a list of links broken down by state for finding a program to become a registered therapy pet handler.


Receiving a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s is never easy, but there are more options than ever on how to treat it. While service dogs who are trained to assist in the care of dementia patients is a relatively new phenomenon, patients and their caretakers alike are seeing amazing results in improved mood, self-support, confidence and overall quality of life. If you or someone you care about is struggling to find ways of dealing with this disease, a service or therapy dog may offer the guidance and support you’ve been seeking.

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