The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Assistance Dogs and Dementia

There are several ways pets, especially dogs, can be helpful with our LBD loved ones. In her article about how pets bring happiness and healing, Sue Cartledge talks about therapy dogs. These well trained animals—which can also include other pets such as cats, go with their owners to visit residents in memory care facilities.  Residents talked about how “when I held the dog, the pain in my hip went away” and there were also reports that interacting with the pets improved communication skills.

Mary Pat Baldauf tells about her father, with LBD, and his pet dog, Gizmo, on the Every Woman blog site. This little dog provided her father with unconditional love, friendship and an ever present alarm system that enhanced his final days.

But the article that really impressed me one in the Alzheimer’s Weekly about Nyja, an assistance dog. Therapy dogs are wonderful in a residential setting but don’t help the family where the loved one is still at home. And it’s the fortunate family who finds a dog, like Gizmo, who can become such a help without formal training. 

However, the Canine Companions for Independence trains Assistance dogs like Nyja to provide a multitude of services, from simple companionship to physical help like picking up something that’s been dropped to alerting the caregiver if their charge is in danger or guiding a lost owner home.

This doesn’t happen overnight and it isn’t for everyone. First, the training is similar to that for a service dog, except that it includes the dog, the person with dementia and a “facilitator”—usually the caregiver. Both patient and caregiver need to be “dog” people. The patient, because there needs to be a bond with the dog. The caregiver, because taking on the care of a pet is an added responsibility in an already full schedule. Also, training needs to start as early in the progress of the disease as possible, while the patient still has some ability to learn. Once the training is done, the benefits are many. Here are some:
  •          Decreased social isolation and improved communication skills.  Dogs are social animals and people are attracted to them—and by proximity, to their owner. 
  •          Reduced agitation. The dog’s unconditional love and acceptance tends to reduce anxiety and agitation. 
  •         Increased companionship. The patient always has a friend nearby, thus reducing loneliness.
  •          Increased physical activity. Depending on a patient’s mobility, they may be able to groom the animal, toss a ball, or even go for walks.
  •          Increased pleasure. An ever present, undemanding companion makes life more pleasant.
  •          Caregiver alert: The presence of an Assistance dog is like another pair of eyes, with an alarm system for the caregiver. The dog can warn a person in another room if their charge needs help.
  •          Increased feelings of usefulness: Chores like grooming and “being responsible” for their pet serve to make a person feel useful.
  •          Less stress: The calming presence of an accepting pet calms and decreases stress.
  •          Increased clarity, windows of memory, etc.: Due to the decreased stress!
  •          Decreased depression: Probably due to “all of the above.”
If this subject interests you, we highly recommend that you click on the links in this blog and read the other articles. And feel free to share some of your own experiences as comments!

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