For years, service dogs have been helping people with disabilities. Now they’re being trained to assist people in the early stages of memory loss.
The first-ever “dementia dogs” – a Golden Retriever named Oscar and a Lab named Kaspa, who are both 2 years old – went to work four months ago in Scotland. The dogs were placed with people in early stages of dementia, who have a partner or full-time caregiver. Dementia dogs help their owners by reminding them of tasks like taking their medicine and getting out of bed in the morning.
“Kaspa has given us our life back,” Glenys Will, whose husband, Ken, was diagnosed with dementia three years ago, said on the Dementia Dog website.
“He greets Ken in the morning, so [Ken starts his] day being happy. I have noticed if Ken is agitated or unsettled, Kaspa gives him a nudge so Ken talks to the dog or goes out to the back garden and forgets what had bothered him. … Who would believe a dog came into our lives two weeks ago and turned our lives around.”
Oscar’s new owner, Maureen Benham, has also benefitted from having a dementia dog. She had previously avoided leaving the house because she had difficulty holding conversations. Now she, her husband, Frank, and Oscar go out for daily walks.
“You meet people in the street and it’s a conversation starter, especially if Maureen knows them,” Frank told BBC News. “Before we had the dog, I did get frustrated, but the dog acts as a buffer between you. If it works out and eventually, down the line, it will be a normal thing for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia to have a dog, I think it will be a fantastic achievement.”
The notion of dementia dogs was brainstormed by students at the Glasgow School of Art. For a Design Council competition, they were asked to come up with innovative solutions to help people with dementia live well.
“We thought, why can’t we train dogs to help people with dementia in the same way as we train dogs to help people who can’t see?” Luke McKinney, one of the students, told BBC News.
The students pitched their idea to Alzheimer Scotland, the leading dementia organisation in that country. “The feedback we got was instantly huge,” McKinney said.
Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland all joined forces to start the Dementia Dog project, and started looking for suitable dogs and people who needed them.
“Oscar was withdrawn from guide dog training and passed across to the Dementia Dog project, while Kaspa came straight off the Dogs for the Disabled socialization scheme after being specially selected for the project,” according to the Alzheimer Scotland website.
“Both dogs have been highly trained to help offer practical assistance and help to reduce social isolation and anxiety levels, some of the major problems experienced by couples where one partner has dementia.”
Funding for Oscar and Kaspa’s 18 months of training was provided in part by the Design Council and the Scottish government.
Since the pilot project was so successful, two more pups are now in training to become dementia dogs.
By Laura Goldman