What is An Alzheimer’s Service Dog?
There are approximately 5.3 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and millions more with some other form of dementia. These people present similar challenges to their caregivers that many of our parents of kids with disorders like Autism, chromosome disorders, intellectual disabilities, and conditions that present autism spectrum behaviors. We have been approached by family members of loved ones with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia asking about our dogs trained to interrupt behaviors and to find lost children. After considerable research and thought, we feel the time is right to add this type of service dog to our list of dogs trained. Although we generally work with kids, the challenges these families face are so similar to the kids we work with and with the clear need to make placements on a three-unit team we have and will place dogs with these families.
How Can An Alzheimer's Service Dog Make A Difference?
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. People with Alzheimer’s tend to develop behaviors that are hard for caregivers to deal with and can even become combative. Often before the individual loses the ability to walk around, they can wander from the home and do not have the ability to find their way home or explain to others that they are lost. They may even report confidently that they are on their way to any number of locations; to visit their children, to the store, or a park they remember from their childhood.
We think there are ways the dogs can help people with Alzheimer’s disease, but one must first look at the situation realistically. It is not appropriate to put a dog in charge of someone’s safety, to believe that they will make appropriate decisions for a person. Service dog work is really a series of games and rewards that allow a service dog to perform helpful tasks for their person using commands that the dog understands. Dogs do not understand that the life of their human may be at stake. Dogs need a handler to keep them on task when their minds lead them astray.
We have been contacted numerous times by caregivers looking for a miracle, relief, some time off. They may have heard that the dogs could be trained to go out and about with their confused love one and lead them home from any location. They may have heard the dog can be left home alone with their loved one all day and will stop them from doing anything dangerous. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin have taught us that no matter what happens Lassie will always save Timmy and Rin Tin Tin will always be the hero. In reality, you cannot train a dog to be the miracle these families want and yet, a dog certainly can prove a useful tool in the caregiver toolbox of Alzheimer’s assistance.
Search And Rescue Tracking
One of the scariest things is knowing your loved one is lost and you have no idea where to look. 4 Paws sees this daily in the Autism community as well. Dogs can be trained in tracking. We can train the dog to search for the specific loved one by their scent. If they wander from home, when you are out at the mall, or visiting a friend, the dog – caregiver team can work together to find the lost loved one quickly hopefully preventing a possible life-threatening danger, like wandering out into traffic or going into deep water.
Another task trained at 4 Paws is called behavior interruption. With these skills the caregiver can send the dog in to interact with their loved one without actively engaging them themselves. Most of the time if the caregiver tries to intervene the agitation escalates, but sending the dog in to interrupt the behavior can distract the person and get them to engage in appropriate behavior with the dog, forgetting what they were agitated with.
A frustrating aspect of this disease is the mental anguish it can cause. Often the person no longer recognizes their spouse and may become agitated that they are in their home. They often are confused and may see things that are not there leading to fear and agitation. 4 Paws placed a service dog with a man in the local community whose wife suffers from a progressive form of dementia. When she is agitated he puts the dog, a Papillon, in her lap and asks her to get a tangle out of the hair behind the dog’s ear. She will sit for hours picking at the tangle, peaceful and relaxed. Placing the dog into her lap calms her almost immediately. No matter how combative she is, she will never engage in negative behavior with the dog. It seems that the mind remembers the peaceful interactions with dogs long after most other memories are gone.
In some cases where the person may have difficulty staying with the family when out and about the tethering system may be appropriate. A wristband that is attached by a tether to the dog’s vest can keep the person on track and with the family as they move through a crowded festival or mall type environment. If they are willing and able, a second leash attached to the harness could also be used as a reminder to them to stay with the dog.
Almost as important as the trained tasks we have discussed, like all dogs trained or not, they also provide companionship and friendship for their partner. They create an anchor to reality by maintaining a meaningful daily routine, which thus adds to the quality of life. Walking the dog every day provides exercise for the partner and keeps them healthy longer. It also encourages social interaction between the human partner in the team and other people. These social interactions reduce the sense of loneliness and isolation experienced by people with dementia. In fact, it is good for their caregivers as well. In the first Alzheimer’s Assistance Dog placement made by 4 Paws, the husband has said to us multiple times, “This dog doesn’t just help my wife, she saved my life.”
Common Alzheimer's Service Dog Questions
When should I apply?
Training for these service dogs is both costly and time consuming. We suggest applying as early in the diagnosis as possible, to accommodate the acquisition of funds to cover the fee for service and the wait time until the dog can be trained and placed. Even if the dog ends up placed before some of the trained tasks are needed, the behavioral intervention and the emotional properties can be invaluable.
What is the cost?
Although an Alzheimer's Service Dog can cost between $40,000 – $60,000 to train and place, Open Range has developed service training programs to fit most budgets. To find the current fee for service, please visit: #
Do I have to travel?
You can and it is advised! We have a 1 or 2 week training class you will can attend before bringing the dog home. A caregiver primary handler for the service dog, second adult, and the person who is receiving the service dog will need to be present.
How does a three-unit team work?
The three-unit team is the person with a form of dementia, the caregiver who has been trained to handle the dog, and the dog. The caregiver is always in charge of the dog.
Can the person matched with the dog be left at home alone with the dog?
Absolutely not! If you would not leave them home alone without the dog, they cannot be left home with the dog. The dog is not able to keep them safe independently – an Alzheimer’s Assistance Dog is a tool to help caregivers build a better quality of life and living experience for their loved one with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer's Service Dogs From Open Range Pups
At this time Open Range offers a broad range of services to prepare a dog to become an Alzheimer's Assistance Dog. Here are some training options to prepare your dog for work as an Alzheimer's Companion:
- 1Online Training For Alzheimer's Service Dogs
- 2Online Training For Alzheimer's Service Dogs
- 3List Element