Retraining the underdogs
How dogs that don’t graduate seeing-eye school but are trained up as special assistance dogs are helping people with younger onset dementia live fuller, happier lives
What use is a dog that, for all its cleverness and sensitivity, may not cut it as a fully-fledged seeing-eye dog?
For a person with younger onset dementia just such a specially trained Labrador ‘assistance dog’ may be exactly what they need to help them make the most of life and stay independent.
Younger onset dementia is a devastating diagnosis, often robbing people of their independence and purpose while still raising families and progressing in their careers.
The condition, where someone under the age of 65 is diagnosed with any form of dementia, affects around 25,000 Australians, some as young as 20 or 30 years of age.
But a new research program is using man’s best friend to improve their quality of life, and early results suggest assistance dogs can provide people with the confidence to be independent, and do so much more.
An initiative of Vision Australia’s Seeing Eye Dogs Australia division, the University of Melbourne and Dementia Australia, the trial takes Labradors that might not be best suited to work as a seeing eye dog, and provides them with several months of specific ‘assistance dog training’.
The training program has been designed by Seeing Eye Dogs Australia to take into account the specific support needs of people with dementia. The dogs are then carefully matched to their new owners, and further prepared to meet their particular needs.
Professor Keith McVilly from the University of Melbourne’s Hallmark Disability Research Initiative, is leading the trial, which is the first full-scale university-based trial of its kind to research the impact of assistance dogs on the health and quality of life of people with younger onset dementia and their carers.
It is building on anecdotal and as yet untested evidence of the positive effects an assistance dog can have for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
While there is no known cure for dementia, Professor McVilly believes it is important to focus on how people with the condition can live well.
“Our trial shows that participants are reported to be more confident to stay at home on their own, or to go out for short walks on their own, without having to rely on a family carer. This increased level of independence has been reported as important by both people with dementia and their family carer,” he says.
People with younger onset dementia commonly experience short-term memory loss, difficulty in planning, changes to their judgement and spatial awareness, and some changes in personality and thinking.
Support dogs are trained to provide companionship, emotional support and practical assistance. In the case of dementia, they offer comfort and calm to a person who is distressed or agitated. Notably, carers are reporting feeling more reassured about leaving their loved one alone knowing they are at home with their dog, or that their family member can safely go to the local shop without an escort.
“People with dementia are engaging in exercise and physical activity, through games, walks and excursions that they might not have otherwise done prior to having the dog. Often the dog’s need to go for a walk provides important motivation for the person with dementia to go for a walk too, and to keep walking where they might have otherwise given up,” he says.
“The term assistance dog really doesn’t cover what we have witnessed in this trial. They are assistance, care, devotion and dedication dogs.”
The dogs provide comfort to the person when they are distressed or agitated and will summon assistance from a carer when extra support is needed. They are trained to respond to triggers like medication times and meal times, to bring the person their medication box, or get them to the meal table. They will also stay by the person’s side to provide them with a sense of security, particularly when they are outside the home and in unfamiliar situations.
The trial will assess of a range of factors relevant to both the person living with young onset dementia and their family carers. Among these, the trial will monitor people’s skills and behaviours, their mental health, agitation, variations in medication use, and reliance on respite services and family carers. The health and wellbeing of family carers will also be formally monitored.
Professor McVilly says the participants are reporting regaining a sense of responsibility, purpose, and pride in looking after the daily needs of their dog; and not simply experiencing their life as ‘a recipient of care’.
In addition, he says, learning and rehearsing tasks associated with their dog’s care provides meaningful and intellectually stimulating opportunities for the proud, new dog owners.
Participants are also reporting that having to care for their dog provides opportunities to focus on issues other than themselves and their health concerns.
Some have even reported it is easier to show emotions and share feelings with their dog, rather than ‘burdening’ their family carer.
“The dog has brought enjoyment to their life, and has provided opportunities to experience pleasure and laughter again.”
The participants in the trial have also developed new friendships and become involved in activities with others dementia assistance dog owners. “The dog has emerged as a common (non-clinically related) interest not previously available to them,” says Professor McVilly.
This common focus on having a dog has been particularly important because, for many, the only common interest was their dementia.
“Conversations are wider, longer and not solely dwelling on the condition. Man’s best friend has put his best paw forward and risen to the challenge, helping yet another group in our community,” Professor McVilly says.
“We hope to continue the trial for another year to fully explore the experience of people and their families as their circumstances change over time.”
The research has been part-funded by Gandel Philanthropy and the State Trustees of Australia Foundation.
National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500
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