How canine companions are helping both those with dementia and their caregivers.

Assistance dogs have long been used to help people with diabetes, autism, blindness, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s honestly kind of surprising, then, that it’s only been relatively recently that people have realized how helpful a service dog could be to those suffering from dementia. 

At least 5 million individuals in the United States suffer from age-related dementias, and many of those people require vigilant care from a family member or medical professional. Service dogs have been found to not only increase the well-being and socialization of people with dementia but also provide much-needed respite to the people caring for them.

How Service Dogs Can Help the Patient

A true service dog is more than just a well-behaved companion animal (although those can be beneficial, too.) To be certified, the dog must complete intensive training over two years, which will teach them different skills depending on the program.

Woman is either handing or accepting a piece of paper from the mouth of a service dog, who is sitting patiently Service dogs trained to assist those with dementia can help their owner maintain waking, sleeping, and eating routines, which is often a daily struggle. The most common way they do this is to learn simple cues — like a tone on an electronic timer or a verbal command programmed onto a smart device like Alexa. They will recognize each cue and then know it’s time to wake their owner, for example, or that it’s time to guide them to use the bathroom. Some might be taught to retrieve medications or offer physical support for those with balance issues. Many dogs are also trained to assist Alzheimer’s patients through behavior interruption to reduce anxiety. For example, if a patient becomes agitated — which is common if they suffer from sundown syndrome — the dog can distract their owner and get them to refocus their energy. They can also provide compression therapy by lying on their owner in times of distress.

Having to take the dog for daily walks is mutually beneficial. It not only encourages the owner to stay physically active, but studies have shown that dogs ease social interactions for people with dementia as well. The type of interactions that occur when walking a dog — simple conversations like “What is its name?” and “How old is he?” — are positive and, most importantly, predictable. This can reduce the sense of loneliness and isolation experienced by people with dementia, as well as increase their sense of autonomy and self-worth. 

Dog laying in the grass looks up lovingly at it's owner, who is standing over himAs the disease progresses, caregivers constantly worry that the person with dementia will leave the house unaccompanied. Most dementia dogs are trained to prevent their owner from doing so or are taught ways to help the person find their way home.

How Dementia Dogs Help the Caregiver

Assistance dogs can provide the one thing a caregiver needs most: respite. When a dementia dog can help enforce routines, it takes those tasks off the caregiver’s plate. They can also help motivate a person to do things they’re otherwise reluctant to do — think exercise — because how do you say no to a dog?

Dogs can be particularly helpful by providing emotional support and unconditional love. Being a caregiver to a spouse, for example, can be incredibly isolating and spiritually draining. Having a pet to care for together can be a bonding experience, something that you can do besides just inhabiting your roles as caregiver and patient.

Service dogs can also give a caregiver peace of mind. Caregivers often experience high levels of stress, because they feel the need to be vigilant at all times; a dementia dog can alleviate some of that. Having a highly-trained animal in the home to help keep an eye on someone who wanders, for example, or that can alert the caregiver if something bad happens, is invaluable.

How to Get a Service Dog

Older woman is seated and is smiling while petting a Golden Retriever. The dog has offered it's paw and the woman is holding it tenderlyGetting a trained service dog can be both challenging and expensive. According to the National Service Animal Registry (NSAR), most service dogs cost between $15,000 and $30,000 upfront. This covers adoption costs, puppy vaccinations, spaying or neutering, and the trainer’s fees. Then, like any other pet, the dog will likely cost several hundred dollars a year for veterinary checkups, annual vaccinations, food, toys, and any additional training. 

Although the initial cost is daunting, getting a service dog can potentially be much cheaper than hiring an in-home care provider. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a paid non-medical home health aide is approximately $1,145 per week, assuming 40 hours of care. 

If you think an assistance dog is right for you, the first step is to talk with your doctor. Many organizations that provide fully trained service dogs require evidence that you need one, such as a letter of medical necessity. This will also come in handy if you have a flexible spending account (FSA) attached to your insurance policy, which could potentially be used to pay for a service animal as well.

Dog - a young golden retriever - is wearing a blue bandana and laying down next to a wheelchair. The occupant of the wheelchair is blurred in the backgroundThe next step is to search for non-profit organizations or charities like Service Dogs for America or Assistance Dogs International, which are dedicated to helping people with disabilities find service dogs for little or no fee. Unfortunately, many of these organizations have a long waiting list. Other charities that require partial payment from those seeking a service dog may have shorter waitlists. While this can still be expensive, it’s well worth it to get a fully trained service dog from a non-profit, as they go the extra mile to ensure that the dogs are top-notch and that the owners they’re going to are prepared properly.

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