Therapy dogs serve in all sorts of health care environments to bring comfort and a friendly (and furry) face to patients living with a broad variety of conditions—including Alzheimer’s disease.
“We went once to a rest home, to the Alzheimer’s unit, and a lady held out her hands to Eva and put her in her lap. We found out later from a nurse that she had not spoken to anyone in five years, but she spoke to Eva,” recalls Juli Hauser, therapy dog parent to four dogs—two now deceased (Eva and Foxie)—and resident of Burlington, N.C. “I visited another Alzheimer’s patient for three years with Foxie, Eva, and Polly. She never responded at all—didn’t even look at us. Her daughter told me that she didn’t recognize her any more. The first time I took Luc to see her, she raised her head, looked at him, and said, ‘That’s a dog.’ The next visit she talked to him a while although I couldn’t understand her words. It’s amazing what dogs can do that we can’t.”
What Hauser is describing is the impact therapy dogs can have with even late-stage Alzheimer’s patients who are having difficulty remembering or communicating with loved ones. Hauser, whose dogs are registered with the national organization Therapy Dogs International (TDI), still regularly visits Alzheimer’s and hospice patients with Polly and Luc.
But what exactly is a therapy dog? Simply, it’s a dog that, along with his or her parent(s), has successfully completed extensive training and received all relevant vaccinations and testing to be certified as capable of rendering therapeutic benefits to patients of hospitals, elder-care facilities, or other health care settings.
Diane Greytak, a therapy dog parent in Arlington, Texas, routinely takes her dogs Huey (6 years old) and Elwood (5 years old), both Labrador retrievers and both registered with TDI, to visit Alzheimer’s patients near her home. She says the training and preparation for a therapy dog and its human companion is rigorous, indeed. “The testing required by TDI is a good place to start. A therapy dog needs to have a sound temperament and be able to deal with and accept different situations presented at a facility,” she says. “They are constantly accommodating and learning but the handler is always exposing the dogs to new and different situations. Then when something unexpected might occur, the dog is able to respond appropriately. They must have good behavior around people and the use of service equipment (wheelchairs, walkers, etc.) and respond to basic commands given by the handler.”
There’s one further requirement, as well. “And they must love their job!” Greytak adds.
Therapy Dogs and Alzheimer’s Patients
For Greytak, getting Huey and Elwood used to being around Alzheimer’s patients was a matter of time and patience. “I started out slowly, letting my dogs become familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of the facility,” she says. “I have built on the TDI requirements for certification as a therapy dog, continuing to expose them to new situations so they will feel comfortable and confident when encountering something different. My job is to make sure that my dogs are responding appropriately and enjoy what they are doing.”
Hauser points out that it’s a give-and-take process. “They have to enjoy being petted and handled by a variety of people. They have to be able to tolerate the loud noises and movements of patients. Parents have to commit to a regular schedule at the facilities they visit,” she says. “You have to realize it’s a working situation, so discipline is a must. You have to keep the dogs’ health up to date—they need more vaccinations and fecal checks than typical dogs do. You also have to keep them carefully groomed and clean. And you have to keep up their training. Dogs can get a little lax if they don’t get regular training. It’s hard to visit at Hospice because patients die, but it’s also so rewarding.”
When interacting with Alzheimer’s patients, Greytak says, the dogs take their cues from the patients themselves. “Some patients interact with the dogs by having physical contact with or petting them. Others respond by watching what the dogs are doing with the other people in the room. Many will sit and talk about the dogs they had when they were younger. The patients enjoy watching the dogs respond to commands. Some just like to have the dog sit at their feet.”
Hauser agrees. “You learn to read their body language. If they put their hand out towards Polly, they want to interact with her. If their head is down and they don’t look at her, you don’t go to that patient. Sometimes they want to talk about a dog they had when they were younger. Sometimes the interaction is completely nonverbal.”
Both Greytak and Hauser see the clear benefits to patients that being a therapy dog parent can bring. “Good therapy dog parents must also love what they are doing because we understand the benefits of what our dogs can do for people,” says Greytak. “All in all you have good-hearted people with good-hearted dogs, all reaching out to make a difference.”