A new type of companion dog is helping people with dementia

An incident on his bike was what prompted John Wood to get a service dog. A longtime teacher, artist and avid biker, Wood was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at 46 and was walking back after hearing his wife singing in church when he got lost. It was late in the day in the Detroit suburbs and he was suddenly disoriented.

But when he asked the people sitting on their porches for help, they balked. Wood is 6’3 and 240 pounds. “I was this huge, scary guy asking people for a weird request,” he said.

Finally, another cyclist helped him to a police station. “I drove home in the back seat of a police car,” he said. “It was a horrifying experience of people being mean and misunderstanding.”

After hearing this story, Wood’s doctor announced, “John, you need a constant companion that’s really cute: a service dog. If you have a dog with you that is friendly, people will see the dog.”

That’s exactly what happened when Wood was mated to Ruby, a long-haired Chihuahua.

“One of Ruby’s perks is that she’s always kind and adorable…people stop and ask what kind of dog she is,” he said of Ruby, who has been with Wood and his family for seven years now.

She also takes on important tasks. Wood has a fainting condition that can come on suddenly. Ruby helps with that.

“She would know if I was about to faint and she would bark,” he said. “The more time we spend together, the better we get to know each other, and when I need help, she barks.” People come over to help where they’ve ignored him in the past.

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Training your service dog

Mark and Brenda Roberts from Alma, Michigan have always been dog lovers. But it was a few years after Mark was diagnosed with vascular dementia in his early 60s that the couple decided to buy and train a service dog.

Mark, now 70, knew one thing. No Labradors for him. He wanted a dog that would sit on his lap, a ball of fur to cuddle with. The couple chose a bichon frize puppy, named her Sophie, and a new relationship began.

The couple knew a local dog trainer and asked her to help them train Sophie. Brenda says they chose to go this route rather than purchase a fully trained service dog because they wanted to participate in the training themselves and know the dog from puppyhood.

They also wanted to save money. Purchasing a fully trained service dog can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service dog as one that performs tasks for a person with a disability, tasks that directly assist with that disability.

Sophie has been trained to track Mark by scent if he ever gets lost, but her main daily task is to retrieve his medication from a bathroom cabinet. Every night at 8:30 p.m., the couple’s Alexa device announces, “Sophie, get it,” and Sophie rushes to the bathroom to get Mark’s medication.

She also carries a GPS that tells Brenda, who still works full-time, where Mark is since Mark and Sophie are never apart. He continues to drive on local roads and can often be seen at McDonald’s.
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at church or at the dog trainer.

Brenda and Mark both say there are less tangible benefits as well. For Brenda, it was the joy of coaching Sophie and loving her together.

“It was like having a kid, a joint project to work on,” she said. “We had a bath night, we nursed them, we exercised them … it gave us an activity that isn’t dementia to do together.”

Mark agrees: “It brings Brenda and I back to life,” he said. “It gives us something to share with other people. We meet a lot of interesting people and dogs.”

Additionally, Mark says that having Sophie with him throughout the day not only eases his anxiety and provides companionship, but she can also help him keep his mind clear. He has always worked with his hands, but this has become more difficult as the dementia progresses.

“If I make something out of wood, I’ll talk to her and give her the measurements and stuff, and since I wrote them down, it helps me not to write wrong measurements,” he explains. “[By addressing Sophie] I can’t get it out of my head right away.”

Read: Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: How to recognize it – and prevent it

“An Unusual and New Breed of Service Dog”

Service dogs like Ruby and Sophie are uncommon.

According to Chris Diefanthaler, Managing Director of Assistance Dogs International“Service dogs for dementia are an unusual and new type of service dog.” Of all the members of their organization worldwide, few report training this type of service dog.

Especially in the US, it’s an area that not many people know about.

Jennifer Lutes is Associate Director at 4 paws for skill in Xenia, Ohio. She says dementia care dogs are her latest training ground.

“We agreed on the necessity due to the circumstances. One of our volunteers approached us about adopting a dog for his wife who has dementia.” The organization has made three placements in recent years.

According to Lutes, the true cost of training a service dog ranges from $40,000 to $60,000. Her organization, funded largely by donations, charges the client $20,000. She says many families are raising money for their dog through crowdfunding campaigns.

It takes about a year and a half of training before a dog is ready for placement, and Lutes says their journey begins when they’re little.

“Dogs go through a health and behavior program to even be able to participate [training] Program…puppies go home with a volunteer trainer and they learn socialization and etiquette. They get the basis for further education,” she explains.

According to Lutes, she was occasionally approached by an adult child who inquired about the possibility that a dog could help a parent living alone. Lutes tells them that any service dog for a person with dementia must be able to take commands from a live-in caregiver as well as from the person with dementia. A dog cannot replace a human reference person.

She offers another caveat to anyone considering a service dog: “Dogs need grooming, time, and energy,” she said. “If you’re too stressed out for things like that, a dog might not be for you. Even a dog needs to practice its skills. Sometimes people don’t realize that. They see a dog in public and it’s polite in public and they don’t know what it took to get to this point.”

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A bridge to the outside world

But Lutes agrees with Brenda Roberts that having a companion dog can be a great blessing, and not just for people with dementia.

“From my perspective, that means Sophie has to do things for Mark, it means I have one less thing to do as a foster partner, and from his perspective, he’s independent,” Brenda said, adding that her husband is also more social than he is otherwise would be.

also read: What dogs can teach us about life and death

John Wood says his Chihuahua Ruby has also provided a bridge between him and the outside world. Her presence has prompted friendly comments and made him more confident when out and about.

“You hear Alzheimer’s and people think you’re sitting in a chair drooling,” he said. “But there is a way to share who we are. We don’t have to hide or have service animals and this partnership allows me to participate in regular activities that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”

When Wood rides his bike these days, Ruby is strapped to his chest.

Ashley Milne-Tyte is a freelance journalist based in Long Island. She has a background in radio and covered her first articles about older adults while working for Marketplace, the public radio business show. Since then she has been writing and hosting the podcast Tightly knit, an eight-part series about family caregivers. She is also the creator and host of The broad experience, a podcast about women and the workplace. You can find them under ashleymilnetyte.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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