Dogs for Dementia Patients: A Growing MovementDogs for Dementia Patients

Every caregiver for a senior with dementia knows the feeling of patience wearing thin. No matter how much you love the person, no matter how much you know their behavior is influenced by the disease, no matter how much you tell yourself these things, it’s hard. Being a person with dementia is confusing and frustrating. Being a person that takes care of someone with dementia is potentially even more so.  

A Growing Concern for Our Nation

One out of three seniors will suffer from dementia. Once it starts taking its toll, it’s hard to fight. Alzheimer’s, the disease that accounts for 75% of dementia cases, has no cure. The seniors who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the people taking care of them know that they’re facing a steady decline in the years to come. That’s a daunting fact to face, and one that huge numbers of families in the United States are dealing with right now.

Caregivers often suffer from especially high levels of stress and many even fall prey to depression. No matter how much you love your family member with dementia, there will be days when it’s hard for the pain, frustration and stress not to feel overwhelming.

The toll is high on everyone that dementia affects. It’s no wonder that the patience of loved ones wears thin and getting through the day can increasingly come to feel like a chore. We’re human after all.

Why Dogs are Helpful for Dementia Patients

Ever since the internet’s come onto the scene, something that’s long been true about human nature has been demonstrated with greater clarity than possibly ever before. When we feel we’re surrounded by doom and gloom, one of the most consistently effective ways to brighten our mood is with images of animals.

It’s not just that we like cute things. Having pets around comes with a whole heap of benefits. The presence of a pet has been linked to:

As you may have noticed, there’s some overlap between the list of problems dementia patients and their caregivers face and the list of issues pets help with.

When you start to think about the role pets play in our lives – dogs especially – it really makes a lot of sense that they would make good companions to people struggling with dementia.  Animals aren’t judgmental. They don’t ask much of us (well, unless it’s time to eat or take their daily walk). They encourage activity through daily walks or wanting to play. They can add a social component to a lifestyle otherwise beset by loneliness.

In the later years of Alzheimer’s, when patients have an increasingly difficult time finding anything familiar or comforting, a dog can evoke emotions in an animal-loving patient that nothing else in their life can. They’re soft, affectionate, and won’t care if the senior tells the same story three times.

Animals have been used in therapy care for some time, but the role of dogs in dementia care is a relatively new development. The more that people experiment with having animals around dementia patients though, the clearer it becomes that they can make a positive difference.

In some cases, service dogs are used simply to alleviate the moods of patients. For those already receiving memory care in an assisted living facility, the home may have a program for bringing animals in to improve the moods of patients.

Some dogs with more extensive training can help assist with practical day-to-day tasks, like helping lead a senior home when they go wandering, waking them up at a certain time, or helping remind them to eat and take their meds.  It sounds extraordinary, but the relationship between humans and dogs has long been pretty extraordinary.

Can Service Dogs Move With a Senior into Assisted Living?

Maybe you like the idea of getting a service dog to help with your loved one’s care, but you’ve got this nagging question in your mind about what will happen when you have to move them to assisted living. Someone will have to take care of that dog. You can’t just abandon it or send it to the shelter after your family’s bonded with it and depended on it for so long.

In fact, a growing number of assisted living facilities are pet friendly. Many homes that provide memory care recognize that pets are like family to their owners and know the research behind the benefits they bring to seniors. As a result, your family should have little trouble finding a facility that allows your dog. And service animals have been trained so well, that any pet friendly assisted living facility will be pleased to have such a well behaved dog in their midst.

What if My Loved One Isn’t Equipped to Care for a Dog?

Many assisted living homes work with programs that will bring therapy dogs into the home, so residents can enjoy some of the benefits of being around the animals without having to take charge of their care. If your loved one’s assisted living facility is not yet taking advantage of a program like this and you think it could be a benefit to the residents, talk to them about it.

Point them to programs like Pet Partners that will set up visits for therapy dogs in the home. If they’re concerned about the possibility of dogs displaying behavior that can upset other residents, let them know that therapy dogs are very carefully trained to ensure they obey commands even in the face of distractions, don’t startle easily, and won’t make loud noises or jump up on residents. They’re a safe and comforting addition to any facility.

Success Stories

While service dogs have been around for a while, therapy dogs for dementia are a little newer on the scene. Nonetheless, there are a number of strong examples of how much they can help patients.

Dementia Dog

Dementia Dog is an organization in the UK that trained some of the first dogs that have played the role of helping dementia patients. They share several stories on their website about the effect the dogs they train have had on the families they go to live with. One caregiver describes how their dog nudges her husband anytime he gets anxious to distract him from his negative emotions, while another discusses how useful their dog is for helping his wife remember to take her pills. The families report being calmer, happier, and their loved one being more themselves than before.

Therapy Dogs in Assisted Living

The Fisher Center shares the stories of several therapy dogs that have made a difference with their visits to assisted living facilities. The owner of  one of the therapy dogs in the story described a particularly touching moment between her dog Eva and a resident, “she had not spoken to anyone in five years, but she spoke to Eva.” As the article’s stories attest, the people who bring therapy dogs into nursing homes see some tremendous things. Residents who have had a hard time speaking or interacting with anyone for years will suddenly be comfortable engaging with a dog. To those that have seen it in action, the difference the dogs make is clear.

TheraPaws Project

This piece wouldn’t be complete without a dog video, now would it? This story about the TheraPaws Project in the UK shows examples of seniors interacting with dogs and talking about how meaningful their visits are. You can hear in their voices how much joy those dogs bring them and see their smiles as they interact with them.

How to Find a Dementia Dog

If you want to find a dog that will provide some of these benefits to your loved one, there are several organizations that help train service dogs and match them with those who need them:

If you’re willing to train a dog yourself to play the role of service dog, most communities will have dog trainers that specialize in training therapy dogs. Do a Google search for therapy dog training in your city to identify the options available nearby. Naturally, training the dog yourself will take time and work, but it can be a rewarding experience that creates a bond between your family and the animal.

We’ve known for a long time that man’s best friend had an important role to play in our lives. We’re learning little by little how much more they have to offer in our greatest times of need than we ever knew.

Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based copywriter and lifelong student with an ongoing curiousity to learn and explore new things. She turns that interest to researching and exploring subjects helpful to seniors and their families for SeniorAdvisor.com.

3 Comments

  1. Janet Pickrel August 8, 2018 Reply

    All I want to know is how to get a service dog for my Husband who has Dementi

  2. Vinton & Joanne Pease April 15, 2019 Reply

    We have had various hunting dogs when my husband hunted quail. He loves dogs. I’d like to know about older dogs, rescue dogs, good with Alzheimer’s patient & me as caregiver!! Calm, affectionate etc. don’t know where to look or best breed to get. Any help would be appreciated!
    We have two Siamese cats.

  3. Deirdre Osullivan June 20, 2019 Reply

    I have a 3 year old German Shepherd mixed with a domain they are a proud bunch and I’m not sure if they are good for my dad’s dementia but I heard German Shepherd dogs are very smart and can be trained

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