Two specially-trained dogs have become the first assistance dogs in the UK to help people with dementia. Kaspa and Oscar are part of a project to investigate how a dog may bring benefits to people with early-stage dementia.
The project, which was generated by students at Glasgow School of Art’s Product Design department, then developed by a partnership between Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland began in 2012. Both dogs have been highly trained to help offer practical assistance and help to reduce social isolation and anxiety levels, some of the major problems experienced by couples where one partner has dementia.
A further two dogs have already begun their training.
Utilising the skills of the four organisations and helped by funds from the Scottish Government and the UK Design Council, the project could herald a new era in the way people with dementia and their carers are supported at home.
Oscar is a Golden Retriever and Kaspa a Labrador. Oscar was withdrawn from guide dog training and passed across to the dementia dog project, whilst Kaspa came straight from the Dogs for the Disabled socialisation scheme after being specially selected for the project.
As puppies they spent their first year with experienced volunteers learning to be well-behaved and well-mannered young dogs. At just over a year old they moved into the Guide Dogs Training Centre at Forfar, where they were trained for their new role, with the specialised help of staff from Dogs for the Disabled, based in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
In March, Oscar and Kaspa completed their training and went to live with couples Frank and Maureen and Ken and Glenys from Angus. Maureen and Ken were both recently diagnosed with early stage dementia and the couples were already receiving support from Alzheimer Scotland. Dealing with the realities of dementia, their lives were changing and starting to present all sorts of unwelcome new challenges.
Oscar and Kaspa have settled in well to their new homes and are already making an impact on the lives of their new partners. Both dogs have been trained to fetch medicines when a reminder alarm goes off. The dogs can take items between the two couples and can also be trained to help wake up a person.
For both couples, having an assistance dog has provided a reason to go out for regular walks to the park together – a great way of meeting people and keeping in touch with the world around them. The dogs are also proving to be great stress-relievers at home, where the couples say that they feel more motivated. The carer finds that they are spending less time giving reassurance to their partner because the dog gives a calming new focus for the person with dementia.
Comments carer Glenys: “Kaspa has given us our lives back”. This sentiment is echoed by Frank, “Maureen and I can’t imagine going back to what it was like before we got Oscar.”
Says Helen McCain, Director of Training at Dogs for the Disabled; “For 25 years we’ve been training assistance dogs for physically disabled adults and children and more recently for children with autism. This new project has provided us all with an opportunity to bring together our skills and experience to help with a different kind of challenge. We believe that the dementia assistance dog could make a significant contribution to the Government’s National Dementia Strategy.”
Joyce Gray, Deputy Director of Development at Alzheimer Scotland says; “Dementia Dog has had a truly wonderful impact on the families involved and Alzheimer Scotland is delighted to have been part of this ground-breaking project. It’s also been a great example of partnership working. Supporting people with dementia and their families to live well with the illness requires innovative and imaginative approaches and the Dementia Dog team have brought all this and more to the project.”
Logan Anderson, Guide Dogs Scotland Forfar Training School Manager adds; “Our change-of-career guide dogs contribute invaluable work with other assistance dogs charities and the Dementia Dog pilot has shown, not just how the dogs have provided practical benefits to those living with Alzheimer’s, but also the mood-enhancing and emotional benefits as well.”
Gordon Hush, Glasgow School of Art (GSA) Product Design Programme Leader adds, “Dementia Dog sees GSA Product Design graduates extending their skills beyond the traditional domain of material manufacture into the generation of experiences that improve the quality of life of both carers and those with dementia. The ability to re-design experiences is a significant challenge and one that these young designers have risen to in an extraordinary fashion. The success of this project is a testimony to the capacity for design education to be married to a social conscience and a concern for one’s fellow citizens. This is design as a means of making the world a more desirable place to live in.”