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Posted: October 09, 2003

Similar to Guide Dogs for Blind

Caregivers May Turn to Dogs to Assist Alzheimer's Patients; Tests in Israel Show Positive Benefit

A novel approach to dealing with Alzheimer?s disease has been tested in Israel where a guide dog has been trained to assist an Alzheimer?s patient, much like a guide dog assists the blind. If successful on a broader scale, guide dogs could work alongside family caregivers in helping care for loved ones with early-onset Alzheimer?s.

The goal of the Alzheimer's patient guide dog project, which has been four years in development, is to make the patients' life easier, and in turn, make the life of the primary caregiver as well as the rest of the family more manageable.

"Unfortunately, this is a population that gets lost frequently, and as a result they experience terrible isolation, frustration, anger and a sense of helplessness," explains Daphna Golan-Shemesh, an Israeli social worker and co-developer of the project. "They find themselves prisoners in their home and completely dependent on other people to go to outside.?

Golan-Shemesh developed the Alzheimer?s guide dog project with professional dog trainer Yariv Ben-Yosef.

" We sat in a room and talked about what we did and immediately a light bulb went off over our heads," recounts Ben-Yosef. "It was clear to us that Daphna's expertise in Alzheimer?s and my expertise with dogs could result in something new. We asked ourselves ?why couldn't we train dogs to help these people, not just as therapy dogs, but as real practical daily assistance?."

As a result, a guide dog named Polly has been paired with a 62-year-old man who has early-onset Alzheimer?s. Polly accompanies the man wherever he goes. She knows his routine and his habits. If he becomes confused or disoriented, all he has to do is utter the word, "Home," and Polly leads him back to his house.

Now, after a year of trials with Polly and her Alzheimer?s companion, a second Alzheimer?s patient is about to receive a guide dog. Golan-Shemesh and Ben-Yosef plan to train and deploy 30 dogs annually in Israel

In the beginning, the concept of an Alzheimer's guide dog seemed far fetched for the pair because training dogs in this manner had been tried unsuccessfully in the past.

The biggest challenge was finding the right dog for the task. "We unsuccessfully tried this with many types of dogs, until we got Polly, who is a collie shorthair that came to us from Finland," said Ben-Yosef. "These dogs seemed appropriate for Alzheimer?s because they have a calm nature, high intelligence and are very sociable with an excellent sense of smell and good spatial sense."

Alzheimer's dogs don't act like guide dogs for the blind. "An Alzheimer's dog walks more freely, not as close to the body like a guide dog," explains Ben-Yosef. "We are only working with female dogs and not with males. It is important that the maternal instinct be present, that they have good eye contact and the desire to please. With the males their head is in the clouds or their own ego."

This is important, the pair says, because part of the job of the dog is to calm and reassure the patient when he is upset.

But the main task of the service dog for an Alzheimer's patient is to bring him home when the order "home" is given. If the patient forgets to give the order, is so lost that he strays too far from the house, or wanders into an unfamiliar area, a worried family caregiver can activate a GPS navigational device installed on the dog's collar and locate the pair if they are lost. In addition, a special tone that can be heard by the dog can be sounded by a caregiver if the pair is not far from the house. The tone also signals the dog to lead its patient home.

At home, the dog remains responsible for the Alzheimer?s patient. The dog is trained to press an alarm button if his owner falls to the floor and doesn't quickly get up, or if the dog hears choking sounds. This can alert the primary caregiver if they are in another room or asleep.

Polly?s inaugural patient, who was not identified for privacy reasons, said of his experience:

" Dealing with this illness is a long process. It is very easy in my situation to feel like your life is over, that you are dependent and to lie in bed and wallow. Polly doesn't let me stay in bed too long. When she decides I've slept long enough, she knocks the blankets off the bed and brings me a ball to play with her. And I say ?OK, OK, I'll play for a few minutes,? and get out of bed to walk her. Before I know it, I've gone and walked with her for an hour, and I meet people on the way and talk to them. One of the problems of this disease is loneliness. You cover yourself in armor and don't talk to people. With Polly, I don't have the luxury of isolating myself. People are always coming up to her and to me, playing with her, asking me questions about her. Because of her, I am still part of society. Since I have had her, I haven't been afraid to go out, to fall or get lost. Because of her, I feel free, I'm not dependent on my wife and kids, and for months I haven't had to use my cell phone to call on them for help."

Ben-Yosef and Golan-Shemesh have joined with the Israeli Alzheimer's Association to promote the project. It is now being to be unveiled to Alzheimer's groups and dog training organizations around the world, and the pair reports that reception has been enthusiastic.

RESOURCES

For more information on this topic, check out these resources:

Disabled Service Dog Center, Yariv Ben-Yosef?s website, visit www.dservicedogs.com/mainframe_eng.html.

Article (in English) on Alzheimer?s Aid Dogs, link within this site, www.aisrael.org/hebrew/proffessional.asp.

Alzheimer?s Association of Israel, Ruth Goldberg, President, P.O.B. 8261, Ramat Gan, Israel 52181, or phone 972-03-578-7660. Email aai@netvision.org.il.

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