Alzheimer’s disease is frightening. The loss of your health as well as the part of you that makes you unique is a terrifying idea. Those who are affected by this disease begin to lose memory, judgment, and orientation in time and to their surroundings, along with their ability to relate normally to the presence of people because of damage to their cognitive thinking. These changes interrupt their normal function in everyday life. The loss of orientation interferes with the ability to return home safely which could be compromising to their safety every time they step out of the door alone.
As the disease progresses, Alzheimer’s sufferers experience terrible isolation, frustration, anger and helplessness. As the disease starts slowly, it leaves the sufferer aware of what is happening to him and what he can expect in the future. People as young as 50 to 60 can start feeling the first effects, and active, respected professionals find themselves prisoners in their own homes, dependent on others for even the simplest things. The resulting depression and despair often leads the patient to refuse to leave his home or bed and to refuse contact with others as well as serious deterioration of the patient’s physical health.
An Israeli dog trainer, specializing in training dogs for various disabilities, felt that there had to be a way to train dogs to help early onset Alzheimer’s sufferers live a normal life for as long as possible so as not to be a burden on their families and caretakers. Dogs assist people with a variety of physical and mental disabilities so there should be no reason why they could not also be trained to help Alzheimer’s patients. After consulting with medical, psychiatric, social workers, and technical experts, a service dog program was developed to specifically cope with the problems of this condition.
The first dog to be trained in the program was a smooth collie, starting when she was three months of age. Her main job is to bring her master safely home when he becomes disoriented, avoiding obstacles such as parked cars, holes, traffic and anything else that might get in the way. In addition, she is trained to give her charge support to avoid falls and injuries which Alzheimer’s sufferers experience when they have lost their orientation to their surroundings.
Patients often feel fear, distress, loneliness, and anxiety, and lose the ability to act with caution so the task of the dog is to be a friend and be with the patient 24 hours a day. They are able to calm their owner and distract him from his fears and worries and improve his mood. The dog is with him at night and when other family members are busy with other pursuits so the patient is never alone. When their charge is feeling depressed and will not get out of bed, the dog is trained to pester him by pulling off the blanket, bringing toys, and will not quit until his owner gets up and tends to his needs. It is important for Alzheimer’s sufferers to keep active as it is believed to be a factor to slowing the progression of the disease. Alzheimer’s assistance dogs enable their owners to go out for a walk without the company of other family members which is excellent for the well-being of the patient, increasing contact with other people who show an interest and are curious about the dog wearing the special harness. This contact and interaction helps to bring the Alzheimer’s patient out of the loneliness, isolation, and boredom cycle. The Alzheimer’s assistance dog is trained to detect unusual physical conditions or problems with their owner such as difficulties breathing, falls and the like and will call for help.
The primary task of the assistance dog is to bring his master safely home. If the patient begins to feel lost or disoriented, he is conditioned to give the command "Home!" to the dog. The dog takes control, leads the patient back home and barks at the door to alert the family members. A special GPS homing device, which is attached to the dog’s harness should his master forget the command, is not able to give the command, or has wandered into a completely unfamiliar area, can be used by family members to alert the dog that it is time to come home. The GPS device can locate the dog should the patient refuse to follow.
The task of the Alzheimer’s assistance dog is demanding, complex, and stressful, more so than any service task performed by dogs as they must be able to take the initiative when necessary and function without any commands from their owner, in response to the situation. These dogs must be able to put up with the radical mood changes, typical of the disease; to stay loving, devoted, and able to keep working. After much consideration and trying various possibilities, the smooth collie proved the ideal breed. This efficient herding dog is highly trainable without being overly active or spirited and are not aggressive to people or other dogs and animals. They have a strong play drive which is essential in their training, extremely loyal, and want to be with their people 24 hours a day. They are tough, resilient, and tolerant of mood changes in their master and keep on working and will not let patient instabilities interfere with the dog and master bonding. They are a healthy breed and easy to care for.
Now, a larger breeding group of smooth collies must be established from stock with proven working ability; to produce more puppies to assist more people. Alzheimer’s assistance dogs can change the lives of people living in despair due to this horrible disease and help them live independent and functional lives for as long as possible.