Assistance Dogs Enhance Independence in Dementia

Posted on May 14, 2012

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Canine Companions for Independence

Canine Companions for Independence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a great idea for those that are active and want to be able to regain some of their lost freedom.  It also allows family to be more comfortable with their loved one being more independent.

Dementia can rob us of many things, it is nice to see a restorative program like this.

Assistance Dogs Enhance Independence in Dementia

Jonathan Lockley is walking Roz, his Labrador retriever. They look peaceful together. Even though Jonathan is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, he feels safe because he knows if he becomes lost or confused, his dog Roz will lead him back home upon hearing the command “Home.”

Canine Companions for Independence is a nonprofit organization with five regional training centers that has trained and supplied more than 2,600 assistance dogs since 1975, enhancing the lives of an equal number of people with physical and developmental disabilities.

Skilled companion dogs work as part of a three-part team with an able-bodied adult, offering a sense of security to people with disabilities such as those in early-onset Alzheimer’s. A typical partnership involves the person with Alzheimer’s and a spouse, child, aide or partner. These helpers, called facilitators, are also involved in the Team Training process, so that they can learn handling skills and concepts along with the student. These teams are called Skilled Companion Teams. CCI’s primary goal in the Team Training process is to help develop the maximum amount of independence that a team can achieve with an Assistance Dog.

The journey for any assistance dog begins at the age of 8 weeks when they are placed with volunteer “puppy raisers.” CCI uses golden retrievers, Labradors and retriever-Lab mixes because of their gentle temperament, intelligence and strong willingness to work and please others.

Over the next 16 to 18 months, the pups learn basic house training, obedience commands and socialization skills. Then they return to CCI, where they undergo a thorough screening that includes medical tests. At this point, dogs may be released for temperament or medical reasons. While many released dogs are adopted, many more are used for services better suited to their skills. These include careers in drug- and bomb-searching, customs, border patrol and therapy.

Upon passing the initial screening, the young dogs begin training with professional CCI instructors for six to nine months. Off-site field trips examine each dog’s ability to adapt to different environments. On the CCI campus, they learn how to flip light switches and open drawers.

These deceptively simple chores are often challenging for people with disabilities. “With my service dog, I can go to the bathroom by myself,” a man who uses a wheelchair said. He sometimes leans upon the dog’s strong shoulders for support. “He picks up things when I drop them. This may sound easy, but it’s not.”

A caregiver and patient with their Assistance Dog

Dogs that complete the training are matched with a recipient. CCI candidates are not charged for their dogs but must have physical or developmental disabilities and demonstrate that an assistance dog will enhance their quality of life.

“Most candidates receive a dog within one year,” said Jeanine Konopelski, director of marketing at CCI in Santa Rosa. “The list doesn’t move in a strict chronological fashion, as we match dogs to the particular needs of people with disabilities. Certain individuals have the potential to work with a broad range of our dogs, while with others, only a very unique dog will be appropriate.”

For two weeks, recipients and their new dogs live together at a CCI campus in a cozy dormlike setting. While participants are educated in the proper care of their canine, the dogs begin working in their new capacity. Each is getting to know the other.

The two weeks are capped with graduation ceremonies, held four times a year at each of the training centers nationwide. These poignant events include a final and often emotional reunion between the canine graduates and their original puppy raisers. Then, to “Pomp and Circumstance,” the puppy raisers bid their pups adieu as they hand the leash to the CCI recipient.

One puppy raiser fought back tears as she observed her former charge, a young black Lab, nuzzling the hand of her new guardian, a man with Alzheimer’s.

“It’s a natural progression of love,” she smiled.

Assistance Dogs Enhance Independence in Dementia | Dementia & Alzheimer’s Weekly.

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