First dementia dogs start work with owners

By Eleanor Bradford
BBC Scotland Health Correspondent

Image caption,
Students at Glasgow School of Art had the idea to train guide dogs to help people with dementia

The first ever "dementia dogs" have been working with their new owners.

The dogs have been trained to help people with early-stage dementia and can remind them to take their medicine and help them get out and about.

They were the brainchild of a group of students from Glasgow School of Art.

The students suggested that dogs could be trained to help people with dementia in the same way that guide dogs help people who are blind.

With the support of Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland, two dogs underwent 18 months of training.

Golden retriever Oscar and Labrador Kaspa have been working with their new owners for four months, after 18 months of training.

They have been taught to respond to alarms and bring medicine pouches, to nudge their owners to read a reminder and to encourage them to get out of bed in the morning.

Ken and Glenys Will cannot believe how much difference Kaspa has made to their lives. Ken had become frightened of being alone after being diagnosed with dementia three years ago.

"Kaspa is the best thing that's ever happened to us," said Glenys. "We can go shopping and the dog will sit with Ken. I don't need to worry about him. We're both more relaxed."

While she is working as a lollipop lady, Glenys can now leave reminders beside an alarm for Ken.

"If I need the oven on, I'll leave a note beside the alarm in the kitchen. When the alarm goes off Kaspa nudges and nudges Ken until he's glad to get up. It's just amazing."

Making progress

Frank Benham has also noticed a big difference in his wife Maureen since Oscar was placed with them. Maureen had lost confidence because she found it hard to hold conversations. Now they are out every day.

"You meet people in the street and it's a conversation starter, especially if Maureen knows them."

Image caption,
Frank Benham says Maureen is more confident since Oscar was placed with them

"Before we had the dog, I did get frustrated," added Frank, "but the dog acts as a buffer between you. If it works out and eventually, down the line, it will be a normal thing for people with Alzheimer's or dementia to have a dog. I think it will be a fantastic achievement."

The idea came from an unusual source, students at Glasgow's School of Art. They were asked to come up with products to help people with dementia.

One of them was Luke McKinney. "We thought, why can't we train dogs to help people with dementia in the same way as we train dogs to help people who can't see?", he said.

"We presented the idea to Alzheimer Scotland and also some service users, and the feedback we got was instantly huge."

The way ahead

Alzheimer Scotland worked with Banbury-based Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland to identify suitable couples and dogs, with some extra funding from the Design Council and the Scottish government.

The first two dogs have proved such a success that two more are already undergoing training and the charities involved say dementia dogs could be a significant new way of helping people with early-stage dementia.

"Supporting people with dementia and their families to live well with the illness requires innovative and imaginative approaches," said Joyce Gray, deputy director of development at Alzheimer Scotland.

"Dementia Dog has had a truly wonderful impact on the families involved."

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