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How Alzheimer’s patients respond to therapy dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dementia therapy dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • A study in 2006 showed that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) improves the quality of life for people with dementia by positively impacting their socialization and decreasing agitated behaviors
  • The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) provides free therapy dog sessions for people with dementia-related illnesses and their family members, friends and caregivers
  • Friendly, nonthreatening pets can help dementia patients be more interactive, even when they’re unable to in social settings with other adults
  • In choosing which dogs meet the qualifications, experts often screen the animals for their behavior with people and other animals and look for their ability to follow basic commands and use good social skills
  • Therapy dogs should also be able to calmly handle unexpected situations, such as interacting with large groups of people and being handled in ways they may not be used to

There’s something about the adoring gaze of a sweet little dog — or a big one — that makes people feel calm, content and comforted. No matter how old or young you are, having a companion who wants to share a moment or an afternoon with you can shift you into “the now,” which is particularly beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients.

That’s what people at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) have found. Of the many services provided by the organization, its free therapy dog sessions for people with dementia-related illnesses and their family members, friends and caregivers, is one of the most rewarding for everyone concerned.

The AFA’s Education and Resource Center in New York City opens its doors once a month to welcome therapy dogs and their handlers. The benefits are mutual, as the residents and their guests get a little something special in the form of a canine companion to enjoy for a while.

Molly Fogel, AFA’s director of educational and social services, says the nationwide mission is to provide support, services and education to anyone involved with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. According to Fogel:

“We’re an organization of pet lovers and we recognize the therapeutic value animals hold for individuals of all ages. Specifically when it comes to dementia-related illnesses, there is a variety of ways pet therapy has value.”1

How do dementia patients react when dogs show up?

One thing people notice when someone they love begins exhibiting signs of dementia is that it’s sometimes difficult for them to communicate and engage with others. Bring a dog into the situation, though, and everything can change.

“Their face may light up, they may start petting the dog,” Fogel says. Not only does it provide love, comfort and mental and emotional stimulation, it’s also a means for them to relive some of the memories of pets they had when they were children. “They can engage through this reminiscence and talk all about their pet,” she added.

“Once you see them with the dogs, it’s just smiles, and joy and stories and laughter,” she adds. “They become almost transformed and leave with smiles on their faces, excited to come back.”2

Each therapy session includes two canines and their handlers, trained by The Good Dog Foundation3 to safely interact with the New York City metro area’s senior citizens in an elder care setting. There are 15 spots for the Foundation’s therapy sessions, and they fill up fast, Fogel says, but everybody gets plenty of one-on-one time with a furry friend.

Just like anyone who gets to pet, cuddle or otherwise interact with a dog, people with dementia are eager for the chance to give and receive unconditional love. Whatever their cognition issues might be, they instinctively understand that in this setting, they’re given a chance to express themselves freely.

How can animals make such a difference?

BrightFocus Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports research and public education on brain and eye diseases, including Alzheimer’s, says whether it’s a dog, cat, bird or fish, people with dementia receive numerous benefits being around them:

“By their very nature, pets do not judge, and they are not critical. And for someone with dementia, those qualities make them a good companion. Their very presence can help reduce the effects of dementia — anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, and loneliness.

By their friendliness and non-threatening way, pets can help a dementia patient be more interactive, when sometimes they are not able to do so in social settings with other adults.”4

Dogs have made their way in to a number of Alzheimer’s units across the U.S. Experts say dogs, especially resident dogs, can even help family members and caregivers with patients exhibiting problem behaviors. A study in 2006 showed that animal assisted therapy (AAT) ultimately improves the quality of life for people with dementia. It can positively impact socialization and decrease agitation, particularly when the therapy dogs are trained. Further:

“AAT is an effective intervention because the animal is used as an adjunct to therapy. The animal acts as a bonding agent, placing elders at ease, in a state of immediate intimacy, and positions the therapist as less threatening …

This promotes the relationship between the elder and therapist. The use of an animal as a creator of immediate intimacy may be based upon the animal’s ability to provide the attention that is the foundation of all social interactions. Elders with dementia may have increased needs for attention because they can no longer compete for it within society.”5

What traits should a good therapy dog possess?

In choosing which dogs meet the qualifications for becoming a therapy dog, experts often screen animals by looking at their behavior with people and other animals, as well as their ability to follow basic commands, such as sitting or lying down, and use good social skills without becoming excitable.

Therapy dogs should also be able to calmly handle unexpected situations, including children, large groups of people and being handled in ways they may not be used to, says Laura Hey, the founder of Health Heelers,6 a therapy dog organization in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

There are also different types of helping dogs, and although some people use terms like “assistance,” “service,” “emotional support” and “therapy” dogs interchangeably, each has its own designation. That includes dogs trained to help people with a disability, those performing specific tasks for people with disabilities, fulfilling emotional needs for people while being supported by a mental health professional and therapy dogs, which often covers both emotional and physical challenges.

Reducing symptoms of depression and other emotional issues is one of the hallmarks of a therapy dog’s roll. One of the most ways this takes place is in assisted living facilities where loneliness and isolation, unfortunately, is common. When dogs come into such settings with their handlers even for a few hours, the effects are heart-warming and not only positive, but potentially life-changing.

To anyone watching silky, fluffy, friendly and eager pooches interacting with people who are lonely or who sometimes appear locked in their own confused worlds, it’s plain to see that whatever effort it took to get the dogs together with the patients and people who care for them, it was worth it.

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