Alzheimer Scotland recently challenged the Glasgow School of Art to suggest ways to improve the lives of dementia sufferers. In response, four students came up with the idea to train guide dogs to help care for people afflicted with dementia. The dogs could be taught to assist people struggling with memory loss. Their idea received funding by government health agencies and is being backed by the guide dog charities Dogs For The Disabled and Guide Dogs.
Called the Dementia Dog project, Golden retrievers and labradors are being taught to help dementia sufferers. The dogs will undergo a 6-month training program using positive reinforcement. They are being trained to help remind people to take their tablets, raise the alarm in an emergency, and assist with undressing and tasks around the home. The dogs' training is similar to what guide dogs undergo to be of service to physically disabled and blind individuals.
Dogs can retrieve medications by carrying the medicine, stored in a bite-proof bag, over to a person. They can also be taught to recognise a specific movement that their owner would make when in distress. The dog would then either press an emergency button on a telephone or bark loudly to raise the alarm. The dogs can also learn to open cupboards, drawers, fridges and washing machines, flick light switches, and help people undress.
The project is currently in its very early stages, with a pilot program planned for later in the year. Eventually, it is hoped the initiative will allow people in Britain, who suffer from dementia, to retain their independence for a longer period of time. If the scheme proves successful, it will be the first time that dogs have been used to assist those with dementia.
Deputy Director Joyce Gray of the voluntary organization, Alzheimer Scotland, said: "We are really hopeful the dogs will not only be a huge practical help but also provide great emotional support. People with the condition can easily become isolated and the dog will be a constant companion, which will help them to keep social."
Sufferers of early-stage dementia are also being asked for suggestions for other ways the dogs could improve their lives. Much of the feedback received from families thus far re-enforces the emotional benefits and companionship that dogs provide dementia sufferers. Feedback will be incorporated into the pilot scheme once the funding is raised.