Are there service dogs for dementia patients?  You may be curious to know whether dementia patients can benefit from the help of a service dog. The quick answer is yes.

Dogs have a huge impact on our lives. Aside from bringing joy and laughter, they are companions who make our days brighter and better. They can help us stay calm and be a comfort when times get tough.

For others, however, their impact is much more significant. This is particularly true for service dogs. Service dogs often become an anchor for many individuals who need constant support.

service dogs for dementia patients

How Does a Service Dog Help a Dementia Patient?

Service dogs are canines who are trained to help people with disabilities carry out their day-to-day activities. In fact, they’re so good at their jobs that some of the most famous dogs in the world are specially trained service dogs.

What exactly is a service dog? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as animals that undergo training to respond to the specific needs of their owners who have disabilities. These disabilities can be cognitive, sensory, physical, or psychiatric. Since they provide care to their person, dogs are granted rights to full public access.

This means that restrictions commonly applied to regular dogs do not apply to them since they must be with their owner at all times. For instance, they can be allowed entry in places where pets aren’t commonly permitted, such as:

  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Housing

While they are trained for practical purposes, they eventually become loving companions. Not all service dogs receive the same type of training. Some may be trained to respond and care for patients with anxiety, diabetes, post-traumatic disorder, and seizures.

Dementia is an umbrella term that describes a cluster of symptoms that affects cognitive faculties and social abilities. According to the Mayo Clinic, dementia isn’t a single disease but a range of several illnesses. One of its most notable symptoms is memory loss and cognitive decline that impair daily life and affect independent function.

common dementia service dog tasks

Common Dementia Service Dog Tasks

How do dogs help dementia patients? Dementia service dogs can serve as a lifeline for their owners while providing comfort and peace of mind to family members and health practitioners. Ideal service dogs love routine, which is something that dementia patients have difficulty coping with.

Some of the tasks that service dogs can do for dementia patients include:

  • Opening and closing doors
  • Picking up dropped items
  • Reminding them of missed medications
  • Reminding owners to feed themselves and their service dog
  • Raising the alarm in case of emergencies
  • Directing the owner home when lost
  • Initiating tactile stimulation
  • Providing companionship

Training varies depending on the illness of its owner. For instance, a blind owner requires a seeing-eye dog to keep them on track and safe. For dementia patients, dogs must be trained to bring their owners home if they get confused or lost while they are out.

certified service dog for dementia patients

What Does It Take To Be a Certified Service Dog for Dementia Patients?

What kind of dog is good for dementia patients? Dogs must have a specific temperament to be trained as service dogs. This means that not all dogs can be trained as service dogs. They must have the following characteristics:

Physically Active

Service dogs are critical for ensuring the physical health of their owners. As such, they should be physically active enough to go on walks or visit the dog park. They should have the instinct to work and be active.

Peaceful Disposition

Service dogs must pacify their owners and not the other way around. They should have a calm disposition that isn’t prone to causing public disturbances.

High Intelligence Level

Service dogs often perform complex tasks that require strong instincts and problem-solving skills. They shouldn’t second guess their owners and must act immediately to prevent potential dangers.

Friendly Demeanor

While service dogs need to have a protective mentality, they must also be pleasant and friendly with people and animals around them and their owners.

Loving Attitude

Service dogs must build a strong relationship to effectively provide care and support to their owners. This is possible if the dog has an affectionate disposition to begin with.

In short, service dogs should be calm even in unfamiliar environments, alert but not reactive, sociable, reliable, and have the ability to process and retain information.

Some of the most common service dogs with this temperament are:

  • Labrador retrievers: Friendly, fast-learners, easy-to-handle, and great fetchers
  • German shepherds: Easy to train, loyal, and protective
  • Border collies: Highly intelligent, easy to train, problem solvers, and energetic
  • Great Danes: Gentle, strong, reliable, and can help their owners with balancing issues
  • Bernese mountain dogs: Loyal, easy-to-handle, and eager to please

It’s important to note that while these dog breeds are popular service dogs, their breed doesn’t automatically qualify them to become good service dogs. The training process is still critical since some service dogs must deal with unusual tasks, such as taking care of their own feeding schedule.

thinking of getting a service dog

Things to Consider

Thinking of getting a service dog for a loved one with dementia? Here are some things to help you manage your expectations:

  • Dementia patients may not have the physical ability to handle a dog compared to someone without disabilities. Dogs must have the appropriate training to deal with challenges specific to dementia patients.

For instance, leash training may be different since some dogs may need to work with individuals with mobility issues while others may need to have longer leashes to help guide their owner’s home.

  • Service dog training usually takes several months. It starts with a preliminary introduction to their owner’s scent. This is followed by training with specific tasks to assist their owners. Often, the training is done in tandem with the trainer and new owner.
  • Service dogs cannot replace the function of caregivers. They only act as supplementary support for patients performing everyday tasks. Being able to successfully complete daily activities without help from other people helps patients maintain a sense of autonomy.

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how are service dogs trained

How Are Service Dogs Trained for Dementia Patients?

As you can guess, training a service dog can be challenging. Their training must cover many areas to ensure they can provide holistic assistance to their owners.

Here are some of the types of training service dogs must undergo to serve dementia patients:

types of training service dogs

Scent Training

Scent training is an integral part of building a bond between the dog and its owner. Some dog trainers ask for clothes of owners to introduce to the dogs even before they meet. This also conditions the dogs to feel acquainted once they finally meet.

Service dogs need to undergo scent training to track their owner if they get lost or wander away from home. This can help prevent life-threatening situations such as crossing a busy intersection.

Behavior Interruption

Service dogs for dementia patients also need to undergo behavior interruption to help distract their owner and engage in healthier activities. Since patients often experience mental decline, they are likely to experience forgetfulness, which can cause frustration and agitation. Through tactile stimulation from the dog, the owner can forget what caused their agitation and prevent the mental anguish caused by such incidents.

Experts believe the peaceful interaction is remembered by dementia patients even when most of their memories are lost. Studies have shown that dogs can help induce an automatic relaxation response, lower anxiety levels, and reduce loneliness.

Sound and Alarm Training

Service dogs also need to undergo training to react appropriately to sound and raise the alarm whenever necessary. Service dogs for dementia patients must learn how to respond to sound triggers such as an electronic timer to alert their owner to take medications. Other alarm triggers can also include reminding the owner to eat, drink water, and wash up, among other things. They can also be taught to respond to special instructions to prompt the owner back to safety or home.

service dog in companionship training

Companionship Training

Dogs are the best service animals because they are non-judgemental and can provide unconditional love and support by nature. For dementia patients, service dogs are anchors through which they can maintain their daily routine and their quality of life. Aside from exercise during daily walks, dogs also encourage social interactions that can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Apart from specialized training, service dogs must have foundation skills. They must be house trained, know when and where to eliminate, heed basic commands, and know how to react in the presence of unfamiliar people, places, and situations. Teaching them to focus on their owner and ignoring distractions is key.

An important aspect of service dog training is the dog’s protective mentality. Since dementia patients tend to neglect many of their daily activities, dogs need to be in tune with their owner’s needs.

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dementia patient with service dog

Final Thoughts

Patients with dementia often struggle with performing their daily tasks as their conditions worsen. While a round-the-clock caregiver may help them, service dogs can alleviate some of the burdens of caring for someone with dementia.

While the ADA doesn’t require service dogs to undergo professional training, it makes a huge difference if they are trained to respond appropriately to the needs of their owners.

In patients with dementia, service dogs can offer tons of benefits. Aside from serving as a support for caregivers, they can help those with dementia deal with feelings of anxiety, promote social interactions, and explore a non-judgemental outlet of expression for their emotions.

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