Alzheimer’s Service Animals: Pet Therapy, Guide Dogs, and More
Assistance and therapy dogs have a long history of positive medical impact. Today, Alzheimer’s service animals can make a huge difference in someone’s treatment.
The earliest known seeing-eye dog comes from as far back as the first century A.D. Since then, people across history have known the benefits of humans’ unique bond with canines. Today, service animals can act as emotional supports for the mentally ill. They can also improve independence and quality of life for people living with chronic disease. As of recently, service and therapy dogs can even make a positive impact in the lives of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
THERAPY ANIMALS AND ALZHEIMER’S SERVICE ANIMALS
It’s important to make the distinction between a therapy animal and a service animal. Neither is a pet, and both use their extensive training to support their patients.
Service animals have a one-on-one relationship with their handler (or two-to-one, as we’ll explore later). Through extensive training, service animals learn commands and game-like procedures that improve their handler’s quality of life. These can include things like balance and mobility support, or commands like “Go home” or “Find the exit” for someone with limited vision or memory. They can even learn commands to retrieve things like medications, food and drink, or a phone on a cue.
On the other hand, a therapy animal can serve an entire group or groups of people at once. Dogs, cats, and even dolphins have made a difference in people’s lives through therapy. Unlike service animals, therapy animals are not typically trained to do the tasks that improve someone’s day-to-day routine. Instead, they are calming influences who boost moods and improve interactions just by being around. Often, interacting with a therapy animal brings out instincts and a sense of connection that many patients have difficulty finding on their own.
WHAT IMPACT DO THERAPY ANIMALS HAVE ON TREATMENT GROUPS?
Therapy animals typically treat groups, rather than individuals. Many children’s hospitals now have therapy dogs who boost kids’ spirits as they recover from surgery. Similarly, therapy animals can have a positive impact on groups of people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In 2010, a study conducted in an Italian nursing home drew connections between animal therapy and dementia treatment. In the study, eleven patients with cognitive difficulties received treatment through weekly visits with therapy dogs and their handlers. (A control group of ten patients did not attend the therapy sessions, but did see the dogs coming and going, and occasionally interacted with the dogs in organic moments.)
After the six-week program, both groups responded positively to survey questions about their experience:
In the satisfaction questionnaire administered at the end of the pet session, all participants reported the experience as enjoyable and interesting. Nine out of ten persons reported that the animals had a calming effect and one subject reported recalling past memories. They all recommend the same experience to other older people. Finally, 80% of participants wanted to continue the pet experience.
The behavioral and mental benefits of pet therapy shine through in the study. Having an animal around, particularly in nursing homes or permanent-care facilities where many of the patients suffer from cognitive disabilities, can greatly improve patients’ quality of life.
HOW DOES THE IMPACT CHANGE WHEN A SERVICE DOG ENTERS THE PICTURE?
Service dogs for Alzheimer’s patients are a relatively new offering. This is because traditional training systems had to be updated to fit patients with dementia. Unlike other conditions, the specifics of Alzheimer’s and dementia require a different set of skills and training programs for potential service dogs. Where a seeing-eye dog’s first priority is to keep their owner on track and safe from things they cannot see, an Alzheimer’s assistance dog’s first priority is to make sure their owner gets home safely if they become lost or confused. This requires a drastically different training process than that for other dogs.
One such difference is the leash. For example, service dogs that assist with mobility issues typically wear a harness with a handle so their owners can stay close while the dog works. In Alzheimer’s cases, service dogs require longer leashes so they can walk directly in front of their owners and guide them home.
Possibly the biggest difference is what 4 Paws For Ability calls the “three-unit team.” For other conditions, a service dog is typically paired only with their handler. However, someone with Alzheimer’s may not have the cognitive function to take care of a dog on their own. Because of this, service dogs for Alzheimer’s exist as part of a team of three: the dog, the person they are there to serve, and the person’s human caretaker. The person with Alzheimer’s benefits from the care and help of both, the caretaker ensures the dog’s safety and well-being, and the dog takes on some of the caretaker’s tasks while enjoying the belly-rubs and ear scratches that come with a job well done.
For example, a service dog trained to assist someone with Alzheimer’s could:
- Retrieve medications in a bite-safe container at the sound of an alarm set in advance.
- Guide a lost or confused person home from an unfamiliar location. (If the dog isn’t sure how to get home, they also have a GPS tracker in their collars for caretakers to activate if needed.)
- Safely interrupt behavior if interactions between the caretaker and the patient are starting to get agitated. (One caretaker reported huge improvements in his wife’s contentment when he placed their service dog in her lap anytime she showed signs of agitation.)
- When it’s time for the dog’s dinner, lead a person to a cabinet with the dog’s food and a note reminding the patient to eat, too.
CAN A SERVICE DOG DO “EVERYTHING” FOR SOMEONE WITH ALZHEIMER’S?
The short answer? No.
Dogs are not people. They lack the cognitive ability to make decisions for their owners. A common misconception for caretakers is that a service dog can fully protect a person with Alzheimer’s.
No matter what the dog will eventually specialize in, the training for service dogs follows a similar structure. Using play and game-like repetition activities, dogs learn to follow commands or respond to visual and auditory clues. They can learn how to help and protect a person with Alzheimer’s, but they cannot make decisions for them.
THE FUTURE OF THERAPY IS FOUR-LEGGED
As new studies and organizations like the ARIES Project work to improve Alzheimer’s technology and treatments, the opportunities presented by pet therapy will continue to expand.
For families or facilities without the budget for a therapy or service animal, replacement toys offer some of the benefits without the high price tag. Pet therapy toys are stuffed, sometimes robotic animal toys that stand in for a living, breathing animal. Many of these products offer realistic, lifelike movements — cat toys can pur, dog toys can bark or wag their tails. More advanced models directly respond to interactions. So, patients get similar benefits from petting a toy cat as they would a real one, without the burden of feeding or cleaning up after it.
There is more to come..
These technologies are still in their early stages. Patients who are in earlier stages of Alzheimer’s may be put off if the toys are not lifelike enough. This is why companies like Hasbro are working to create smoother, more realistic movements and interactions for the toys.
The ARIES Project is also working on ways to add safety components to robotic pets. Utilizing the same technology you’d find in Alzheimer’s safety technology, they hope to create a “smart collar” that can detect falls, connect caregivers to their loved ones, and check vital signs. They could also provide reminders to eat, drink, or take medications.
At Best Alzheimer’s Products, we are committed to offering the best products and resources available for families living with Alzheimer’s. We add new information and products as soon as possible, keeping our collection curated for your needs.
Explore our store to discover more updates in pet therapy, toy therapy, and alternative treatments. The resources available in our blog offer support and education for caregivers and their loved ones. Questions? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll be happy to answer your queries in our next blog.
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WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
- “Needless to say, her need for sedatives has stopped.” Carla