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More evidence suggests that dogs can be trained to offer practical support on the dementia journey

Dogs make people happy, we all know that. For a person with dementia, they also provide great comfort and companionship, and add meaning and purpose to life. Fulfilling the practical duties of dog ownership such as daily walking, feeding and grooming boosts mental stimulation and physical health too.

But could man’s best friend be doing even more? Experts worldwide are convinced that, with special training, some dogs could provide more than emotional support; they could help their owners with essential daily tasks and, ultimately, enable them to stay in control of their own lives for longer.

Twenty specially trained Labradors were recently teamed up with people who have dementia in a special trial being conducted in Australia. The trial involved three organisations coming together; Dementia Australia, the University of Melbourne and Seeing Eye Dogs Australia. But the experiment is likely to prove expensive. ‘Training these dogs is very costly and they are being trained to very high standards,’ says Professor Keith McVilly of the University of Melbourne. ‘The training is quite prolonged and requires technical specialists.’

Experts closer to home are also developing special training programmes for dementia dogs, though on a smaller scale. The Dementia Dog Project, Dogs for Good and Community Dogs all have similar goals. The Dementia Dog Project, which was set up five years ago, has trained four dogs to do everything from reminding their owners to take medication to helping them with regular sleeping and eating routines. The cost of this training, which is called Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) is a challenge. But the good news is that all three organisations recently benefited from a Lottery grant of more than £300,000 which will help to fund more. AAI is well established in many parts of the world, but less advanced in the UK. Let’s hope this quite significant grant can help to change that.

If the person you love isn’t able to care for a dog anymore, they may still gain pleasure and comfort from a therapeutic companion puppy. Find out more here.

Did you know?

Images of dogs and cats are helping scientists to spot dementia in people with Parkinson’s.

Around fifty per cent of people with Parkinson’s will go on to develop dementia…and now scientists believe they have found a way to predict who is at most risk. Controlled tests revealed that those who struggle to tell whether an image they are looking at is a dog or a cat, are more likely to develop dementia. ‘We found there was a point where the people we tested (with early stage Parkinson’s) could no longer tell whether an animal was a cat or a dog anymore. We think it might be to do with changes in the wiring of certain areas of the brain,’ explained Dr Rimona Weil, of University College London.

You can learn more about the benefits of dogs for mental health here.