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Exploring the Effectiveness of Dog Therapy for Dementia

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If you or someone you know is living with dementia, it’s no secret that the journey can be a challenging and emotional one. It can be tough to watch your loved one struggle with memory loss, confusion, and a host of other symptoms. 

Dementia affects millions of people worldwide, and while there is currently no cure, there are things you can do to improve the wellbeing of a loved one with dementia. One of which is dog therapy.

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of dog therapy for dementia. From reducing anxiety and aggression to bringing comfort and companionship, readers will learn how these furry friends can make a positive impact on those living with dementia and improve their quality of life.



What is dog therapy, and how does it work?

Dog therapy is considered an alternative therapy for dementia that does not use medication. It is an animal-assisted therapy that uses specially trained dogs to bring comfort and companionship to those with special needs and dementia. It seeks to provide physical, mental, and emotional support through the bond formed between the dog and the person receiving treatment. This type of therapy has been used in many healthcare settings, including hospitals and nursing homes.


How are dogs trained and selected for therapy?

Therapy dogs undergo rigorous assessment to ensure they have the right temperament and personality for the role. One of the primary criteria is passing a temperament test, which examines how the dog copes in crowded places, sudden noises, and being around strangers. Therapy dogs must be calm, friendly, and non-threatening, with a gentle demeanour that puts people at ease. 

Once dogs have passed the necessary assessments, they can undergo specialised training to prepare them for their role as therapy dogs, which includes things like obedience training, sitting calmly and interacting with strangers and other dogs. 


Types of dog therapy interventions

Dogs can help provide humans with support in several different ways:

  1. Service dogs assist people with disabilities, from guiding the blind to alerting deaf individuals. They can also improve mental health, aid those who are physically limited, and recognise seizures. Usually, dogs live with the person they are helping.
  2. Therapy dogs provide comfort, affection, and love in clinical settings like hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health institutions. They are trained to interact with people, maintain a calm demeanour, and be comfortable in unfamiliar environments.
  3. Emotional support dogs provide companionship and ease anxiety, depression, phobias, and loneliness. They are prescribed by mental health professionals for patients with psychological or emotional disorders. They do not perform specific tasks.


How dog therapy sessions work

Specially trained therapy dogs visit dementia wards in hospitals and care homes to provide animal-assisted therapy for those with dementia. They help to:

  • Encourage conversations and interactions among people with dementia.
  • Provide a calming distraction.
  • Promote physical activity by taking people with dementia out for walks. 

People with dementia can connect with something familiar and see the dog as their own dog, giving them a sense of achievement and ownership.


Benefits of Dog Therapy for People with Dementia 

Dogs can help put a smile on your face

Dog therapy has been shown to greatly improve mood in people with dementia. Those living with dementia are at a higher risk for developing depression, which can further impact their quality of life and daily functioning. 

Studies have demonstrated that animal-assisted therapy involving dogs can reduce feelings of anxiety and sadness while increasing physical activity and positive emotions. Engaging in activities with dogs can bring joy and a sense of purpose to those living with dementia, making dog therapy an important and helpful tool in improving mood and overall wellbeing.


Alleviate challenging behaviours

Dog therapy has been found to significantly improve behavioural problems in people with dementia. Studies have shown that the addition of a resident dog to a nursing home can greatly reduce challenging behaviours in those with Alzheimer’s. Additionally, pet therapy has also been found to decrease agitation and aggression in people with Alzheimer’s.

 These results are especially helpful for individuals with dementia who may struggle with behavioural issues as a result of their condition. By reducing these challenging behaviours, dog therapy can greatly improve the quality of life for both the person with dementia and their caregivers.


Provide much-needed emotional support

Dog therapy can provide valuable emotional support for people with dementia. Dogs have a unique ability to form deep bonds with humans, offering a source of comfort and companionship. Studies have shown that individuals with dementia often perceive pets as non-threatening and display more interactive behaviours when in their presence. 

Dog therapy has also been found to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by releasing hormones in the brain that promote feelings of relaxation and happiness. For those struggling with the emotional toll of dementia, dog therapy can be an invaluable tool for providing comfort and support.


Gives you meaning and purpose

Dog therapy can provide people with a sense of purpose, which is especially helpful for individuals with dementia who may struggle with feelings of isolation and confusion. Caring for a dog can give a person a reason to get up in the morning and feel needed and wanted. 

The routine of taking care of a pet and being greeted by their wagging tail or purring can bring joy and laughter to one’s day. Additionally, the responsibility of caring for a pet can help individuals with dementia maintain a sense of independence. 


Research on Dog Therapy for Dementia 

Several studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of dog therapy as an intervention for dementia.

  • This study from 2019 showed that animal-assisted therapy can improve psychological and behavioural symptoms of dementia when tailored to the individual’s needs and interests.
  • However, the results from this 2019 study showed no significant difference in quality of life between those who benefitted from and did not benefit from animal-assisted therapy.
  • Another study showed that dog therapy can help people to cope with the effects of sundowning – where a person with dementia experiences behaviour changes as the sun goes down.

While some are reporting benefits, research outcomes are mixed, so more research is needed with bigger sample sizes to understand the scientific benefits of dog therapy, specifically for people with dementia.


Considerations for Implementing Dog Therapy for Dementia 

When considering implementing dog therapy, here are some considerations to bear in mind.

Identifying appropriate recipients for therapy

It is important to make sure that a person with dementia is not afraid of or allergic to dogs prior to beginning dog therapy. A person who has previously owned a pet dog will make a particularly good candidate for dog therapy as their comfort level with dogs will likely already be high.


Ensuring safety and hygiene during therapy sessions

To maintain health and safety during dog therapy sessions, it is advisable to make sure that:

  • Dogs are not able to wander freely around the premises.
  • Dogs are trained to go to the toilet on command.
  • Dogs’ vaccinations are up to date.
  • Dogs are regularly treated for ticks, fleas and worms.
  • Dogs are not visiting areas where there is a high risk of infection.
  • Dogs are trained not to lick, sit on beds or go near people’s faces.
  • Handwashing or hand sanitising happens after contact with a dog.
  • Dogs are cleaned and well-groomed before visits.
  • A full risk assessment is completed before a dog therapy session.

See detailed information on working with dogs in healthcare settings from the Royal College of Nursing.


Working with trained professionals and organisations for dog therapy

Working with professional therapy dog handlers from a specialist organisation will help make sure that the above considerations are adequately taken care of. 


Practical Applications of Dog Therapy in the Treatment of Dementia 

Here are just some of the ways that dog therapy has assisted in improving the quality of life of people with dementia. 

Dementia dog therapy success stories

  • In a care home in Swansea, residents with dementia enjoyed the company of dogs Rylie and Noah. Even residents who didn’t usually participate in activities were seen engaging with the dogs and stroking them.
  • At another care home in Morpeth, therapy dog Isla has become a firm favourite with residents with dementia. It gives residents something positive to look forward to and takes them back to fond childhood memories of their pets.


Key Takeaway

Dog therapy shows promise as a form of therapy for dementia patients. Trained therapy dogs provide companionship and unconditional love, promoting emotional and cognitive wellbeing, reducing agitation and anxiety, and offering a sense of calm and comfort. As more research is conducted, dog therapy will continue to be recognised as a valuable tool in dementia management. Exploring dog therapy as a form of therapy may bring hope and comfort to both patients and their families.

BelleVie supports people with dementia to thrive in their own homes with compassionate, specialist care tailored to their individual needs. They go the extra mile to ensure you have everything you need to live well at home. Learn more about what they offer.


About the author:

Relish designs products to bring joy to life with dementia. Their mission is to enhance the wellbeing of people with dementia by offering meaningful, fun activities that help them build relationships with their loved ones and caregivers.

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