Canine Caregivers

Ken and Glenys Will with their dementia assistance dog, Kaspa.

Ken and Glenys Will with their dementia assistance dog, Kaspa.

In 2011, Alzheimer Scotland was looking for new ways to support its population living with dementia. The charity wanted suggestions that were original and fresh, so they commissioned a service design project to students in the Glasgow School of Art’s Product Design program. The students came back with a great idea: provide trained assistance dogs to individuals with dementia. 

The proposal made sense, as the psychosocial benefits of therapy dogs are well-recorded. According to the American Psychiatric Association, therapy animals help decrease anxiety, increase feelings of safety and comfort, and encourage social interaction. Combining the positive effects of therapy dogs with the day-to-day support provided by a service animal would be very beneficial to an individual with dementia.

The idea soon grew from a student concept into the Dementia Dog Project, a charitable collaboration between Alzheimer Scotland and Dogs For Good. Between 2012 and 2015, the program went through a pilot phase in which four dementia assistance dogs were trained and then provided to four couples (each individual with dementia must live with a caregiver to qualify for a dog). 

The pilot was such a success that the program then expanded. The Dementia Dog Project is currently training eight additional dogs who will be paired with eight Scottish couples. 

All dogs go through two years of training, first with Dogs For Good and then with HMP Castle Huntly, a prison-based assistance dog training program. 

To create a long-lasting bond between animal and human, the Dementia Dog Project team identifies a match based on the dog’s skills and the client’s needs. The dog’s training is then tailored to specifically support the couple it will be placed with. For example, a dog might assist the individual with dementia by fetching a water bottle to remind the individual to hydrate, or by helping remove pieces of clothing when the individual dresses. 

All dementia assistance dogs also offer emotional support. They instill a sense of calm, improve confidence, and, as dogs need to be walked, encourage the individual with dementia to get out of the house, reducing social isolation. 

Ken and Glenys Will received a dementia assistance dog during the project’s pilot phase in 2013. Glenys, Ken’s wife and caregiver, says that welcoming Golden Labrador Kaspa into their home was life-changing. Kaspa is trained to wake Ken up, bring him medication and take items between the couple. And, as Kaspa calms Ken, Glenys feels more able to leave the house, knowing Ken isn’t alone. 

“Kaspa has given us our lives back,” she says. [