Lassie Leads the Way: Alzheimer’s Assistance Dogs Lend a Paw

Kristine Watson

Every week when we watched the TV show Lassie, I always thought, "How can dogs be that smart?" Their intelligence and dedication to their human partners continues to amaze us.

Pet therapy has been shown to be particularly helpful to Alzheimer’s patients and those affected by other dementias. Pets, and dogs in particular, can calm those affected by dementia, help them stay active (Dogs love to walk!), and help them stay social through interactions with passersby who cannot resist these fuzzy companions.

Dogs in general often provide enjoyment for those dealing with dementia, and it has been shown that dementia patients have a greater appetite following a visit from a canine companion. When Daisy, the 100-plus pound Leonberger-German companion dog visits nursing homes; just calling her name engages the dementia patients and gets them involved in her visit.

The good news is there may be additional promise in the area of pets helping people with dementias. Imagine dogs trained to remind a person to take medication and eat, or lead a person with dementia back home.

Even more impressive, imagine that these dogs could accomplish all of these tasks without receiving any type of verbal command. Does this sound farfetched (no pun intended)?

Considering the intelligence level and demeanor of certain dogs, this idea is not as crazy as it seems. In fact, today there are approximately six dogs in the world trained to do exactly these types of tasks through two projects — one based in Israel and one based in Germany.

Unlike traditional pet therapy, which mostly offers companionship to the Alzheimer’s patient, these two projects have undertaken training assistance dogs specifically to aid Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients with completing daily tasks. This allows the person to have greater independence.

This type of training is not for all dogs. It is the most demanding type of service dog training. Since their main task is to bring their human companions home when lost or bark for help if necessary. Dementia-assistance dogs are specially chosen based on whether they are capable of assisting without commands and adapting what they have learned to new settings and situations. They also must be resilient enough to tolerate the frequent mood changes from which those with dementias frequently suffer.

Early pilot studies with these clever canines is promising, and the dementia patients and their families have had highly positive results. Perhaps one day in the near future, these carefully trained companions will be coming to a city near you.

Kristine Watson, is the general manager of Comfort Keepers, which provides home health services to seniors and their families. Comfort Keepers Home Care Agency can be reached at 239-4391 or email: ck942@comfortkeepers.com.