Barking Up the Right Tree: Dogs and Dementia

The late, great therapy dog Isabella


During her 70 (human)-year "working" career as a pet therapy dog, my Springer Spaniel Isabella and I padded around countless nursing homes. Animal therapy has long been touted for its medicinal value (lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels, among other benefits.)  I am here to say it works!

I have seen dogs and dementia in action: Agitated and depressed residents visibly relax when they stroked Isabella's velvety ears or silky fur. A smile from someone who was usually sullen. An unprompted conversation about a dog they used to have or that their children own.

Staff has repeatedly recounted to me the positives of those visits, including dramatic mood changes. One woman told me the most wrenching part of moving to a nursing home was not giving up her treasured home of 40 years, but that she couldn't bring her beloved dog.

I read recently on about an experimental program in Scotland training guide dogs to help people with dementia. As they say on the other side of the pond, "brilliant!"

This September, four couples (one of the spouses has early stage dementia) will receive a retriever or a Labrador. The dogs' job will be to remind owners to take their medicine, eat, drink water and sleep. They'll, of course, also offer comfort-they're therapy dogs.

The dogs respond to sound triggers that get them to do tasks, whether it's handing the owner their medicine, waking them, or guiding them to a note in the bathroom, say, that tells them to wash up. In other words, helping them navigate their daily routines. Taking their furry aide for a walk also means the older adult will exercise and interact with others.

Dogs may be a boon to this demographic. They're incredible soulmates for the chatty, cognitively intact. For those who seldom speak and have trouble understanding or communicating with people, a new buddy who doesn't care what they say, or if they say much, can mitigate the isolation and loneliness of old age and dementia.

Does your family member like dogs? If Dad is in long-tem care, is there a pet therapy program where he is? If you have a dog, how about bringing him along when you go to Mom's? Or, if there's no dog in the picture, how about taking your relative to visit an animal shelter?

Other suggestions? How do you think your parent/grandparent would react to a canine companion?

I can't wait to see how the Scottish couples fare with their guide dogs.

If it's a go, other groups will need to bone up (forgive me) on the benefits of pet therapy. For now, test it out yourself.

Follow Sally  at or on Twitter @sallyabrahms.

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