We’ve all seen service dogs accompanying their handlers at coffee shops, in airports, and around town. Most of us assume service dogs only help the blind and deaf, but they actually offer incredible benefits for people with a wide range of disabilities and diseases.
Could a service dog be the right choice for you or a loved one suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?
The Differences Between a Service Dog and a Family Pet
Your family pet is like another child that craves your love and attention. She might be rambunctious and mischievous or quiet and affectionate. A service dog shares the same love as your family pet but behaves with an entirely different set of expectations.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Anybody with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual disability may benefit from the support of a service dog.
Overall, a service animal is a dog with a job. Service dogs are trained and educated to meet the unique needs of their handlers. Some of the most common tasks service dogs perform include:
- Guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision
- Alerting individuals who are deaf to the presence of sounds or people
- Providing non-violent protection
- Pulling a wheelchair
- Assisting during seizure events
- Retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone
- Providing physical support to balance or walk
- Preventing impulsive or destructive behaviors for those with neurological disabilities
Service dogs are also known as therapy dogs and guide dogs. Despite the name differences, all service dogs are purposely trained to assist their handlers and keep them safe.
The 3 Biggest Benefits of Service Dogs for Alzheimer Patients
Service animals are most frequently seen assisting blind or deaf handlers, but research reveals incredible potential for service dogs to help Alzheimer’s and dementia patients as well. This presents an exciting way to assist the 58 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s dementia.
Dogs love predictability and Alzheimer’s patients thrive on it, so they make a perfect match.
Alzheimer’s disease creates memory loss and diminished cognitive abilities that often cause dementia sufferers to forget to eat, sleep, or take their medication. It’s all too easy for people with dementia to get lost and feel helpless. Service dogs prevent these situations by supporting a daily routine of consistency.
Service dogs for Alzheimer patients are trained to open food cupboards, deliver medication in bite-proof bags, walk their owners to the bathroom, and respond to accidents. These simple yet powerful actions make it possible for those with dementia to maintain a predictable schedule and take care of themselves properly.
Service dogs also lend those with Alzheimer’s disease a level of emotional support through companionship and friendship. Dogs are always excited to see their owners, whether it’s been five minute or five hours. Dementia patients form bonds with their service dogs and enjoy better emotional health thanks to this relationship.
Service dogs also provide secondary emotional benefits by ensuring their owners take walks and socialize with other people along the way. These are experiences that Alzheimer’s sufferers wouldn’t get otherwise due to the loneliness and solidarity that commonly defines dementia.
The majority of Alzheimer’s patients eventually move into a child’s home or a long term care facility. Being forced to move away from home and rely entirely on others is depressing and defeating. Service dogs help strengthen and extend the independence of those with dementia. Rather than feeling demoralized by total dependence on others, patients of Alzheimer’s can feel empowered by the support their service dog provides.
Is a Service Dog Right For Your Family?
Service dogs for dementia patients offers many wonderful benefits, but they aren’t the right fit for every family.
First, it’s important to consider the cost of a service dog. Specialized service dogs can cost as much as $25,000, including medical bills, training, and fees. Just like college education doesn’t come cheap, neither does the training that service dogs need to keep Alzheimer’s patients safe, healthy, and happy. Some families consider this cost a small price to pay for the benefits that a service dog provides, but other families don’t have the budget to make such an investment.
Aside from cost, there’s also the temperament of the dog to consider. Service dogs aren’t trained to be cuddly and playful; they’re trained to perform their job. This disappoints some handlers who crave the affection that dogs normally provide. If your loved one would rather have a dog to play with and pet, a calm and well-behaved breed might be a better choice than a fully trained service dog.
How to Provide Daily Care to Service Dogs For Dementia Patients
There’s no doubt about it — purchasing and caring for a service dog is a major investment. If you commit, it’s important to understand the type of daily care required.
First, the environment must be conducive to the job your dog is trained to perform. This could involve structural changes to your home or changes to your living situation.
Daily and weekly training sessions are also essential to hone, practice, improve your service dog’s skills. Regular practice reinforce behaviors and maintains your service dog’s natural instincts to guide and assist. Some service dog owners prefer to complete training themselves, but others hire professional trainers.
A service dog also needs attentive and preventative health care. The people who spend the most on their pets often spend more on medical care as well. Your service dog should have yearly blood work, consistent flea and heartworm treatments, and ongoing vet checkups.
This ongoing care is especially important for service dogs helping Alzheimer’s patients due to the emotional consequences of someone with dementia losing a beloved pet. It’s difficult for Alzheimer’s patients to understand why a pet is gone. They’re vulnerable to worsening depression and isolation. Keeping your service dog as healthy as possible minimizes the likelihood of disease and prevents emotional trauma for your loved one.
Man’s Best Friend: Pet or Service Animal?
Service pets offer enormous benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Make sure you are ready to commit the energy and effort required to train and care for a service dog. Even though a service dog is a serious investment, it’s also an invaluable gift to those that need help the most.