According to the Alzheimer’s Association in 2016, more than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s, and about 33 percent of senior citizens who die have Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. Many of these folks have caregivers and/or live in institutional facilities, but what a lot of people do not realize is that a service dog or a therapy dog can be as effective, in their own way, as human support. Here’s how.

Emotional Health

A quick note first: a service dog and a therapy dog are not quite the same, as our website, USA Service Dog Registry, explains. A therapy dog works in settings such as nursing homes and hospitals and primarily provides friendship and affection. A service dog works in multiple types of settings to help people who have some kind of disability (or disabilities).

People with dementia and Alzheimer’s often feel alone, confused and socially isolated. Therapy dogs (service dogs, too) help them connect emotionally to living creatures. People can carry on conversations with the dogs and and live without risk of judgment. For example, dogs are very much able to tolerate mood swings and confusion and remain as loving as ever.

Whether a dog is a therapy dog or a service dog, it fosters a sense of responsibility. The creature lends purpose to the life of the person with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and promotes social interaction with humans. For example, someone with mild Alzheimer’s who is walking a dog will meet people who ask the dog’s name and other questions. In a nutshell, therapy dogs:

• Can bring happy memories back to the surface (memories of previous pets, for instance).

• Listen and comfort without judgment.

• Re-engage people into the world, thereby boosting mood, nutrition, physical health and more.

• Help people sleep better by soothing them at night.

Navigational Aid and Safety

Service dogs (and some therapy dogs) can be a godsend when it comes to navigational aid, whether it is inside the home/facility or out in the world. For example, they can help a person find his or her car in a parking lot. If someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s wanders away from home, the person’s family can track the person and dog via GPS navigation on the dog’s collar. That is not all; an alert sounded on the collar can tell the dog to take his or her human companion home. If the person is immobile, the service dog will bark for assistance and stay with the person. Service dogs can also track missing people via their scents.

At home, even in the safest environments, people may fall and not be able to get back up. In such cases, service dogs can activate alarms. They can do the same for situations such as choking. Service dogs can help folks stay balanced as they walk and can help with navigating stairs, chairs and furniture.

Routines

It can be easy, even for people in the beginning stages of dementia, to forget important tasks such as taking medication. Good thing that service dogs thrive on routine. When an alert sounds, they can bring medications to their humans or remind them to feed the dog—and to have a meal for themselves as well. In general, service dogs and some therapy dogs can wake folks up in the morning, remind them where their clothes are and tell them that the stove has been left on. A service dog can help a person be more independent for longer by reducing/delaying the need for caregivers or institutionalization.

For many people, service and therapy dogs lessen feelings of dependency, isolation and helplessness. They can reduce depression and increase safety. It may be possible for you or your family to train a “regular” dog to become more of a service dog; with us, no service dog certification is necessary to register your companion as a service or therapy dog.