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Dementia Action Week: how therapy dogs can help those with dementia

This week marks Dementia Action Week and dogs have been shown to help people with dementia as they provide sensory stimulation through stroking and talking.

With 1 in every 10 people over 65 having dementia in the UK, pet experts, Webbox, have put together a piece.

Dementia is a syndrome and a group of symptoms associated with brain function, and it causes things like memory loss, speed of thinking, movement, and ability to use language clearly (NHS).

This illness is extremely difficult to deal with, and can present as a great challenge, both for the people living with the condition and for those close to and caring for them.

It is estimated that 850,000 people in the UK have dementia, making it a more common issue than many of us might realise — there are also around 540,000 carers of people with dementia in England alone (NHS England).

With dementia being such as big issue in the UK, and Dementia Action Week fast approaching, it's important to consider the many things that might be able to help those suffering with this illness live healthier, happier lives.

One of these unexpected measures might be therapy dogs — dogs are known as our best friends, and they can bring a lot of relaxation, fun, and comfort to our lives. So, the pet experts at Webbox have brought together some ways that therapy dogs can assist people with dementia.

Increasing independence

Having a support dog can be a real boost to the independence of people struggling with dementia. While many people with this condition worry about being able to go places alone, handle varied social situations, and maintain their activities, having a dog beside them can provide a sense of security for people who are in the early stages of dementia and able to still go about their usual routine (Dogs For Good). They can help to remove the nervousness around venturing outside the home, and increase confidence when navigating the outside world.

The type of training the therapy dogs receive can vary a lot, and many of these friendly canines are trained to facilitate daily tasks and support people with specific things that have been identified as challenging. This means that it's possible for people to have a furry friend with training personalised to their individual needs, able to assist with keeping up their independence in daily life.

Bringing companionship

Dementia can be an isolating illness, and having a therapy dog can provide some much-needed companionship and social support to people. Dogs are relaxing animals to be around and are able to provide plenty of non-verbal communication and comfort. This non-verbal element is also particularly important to people with dementia, as they often struggle with using language the way they would like to and expressing themselves verbally. So, it can be a relief to gain social input and emotional support in a non-verbal way, which animals (and particularly dogs) are excellent at.

This social support can also assist in bridging interactions with people for dementia sufferers. They might feel more confident and supported in interacting with others when they have their furry friend there, and this can help them to maintain their relationships with family, friends, and carers. Many people with dementia find that they interact with people while out walking their dog, for example (Open Access Government).

Sensory stimulation

Having a pet (and particularly a trained therapy dog) can also provide important sensory stimulation to dementia sufferers in a gentle, calming way (Help for Alzheimer's Families).

Pups want to be stroked, cared for, and played with, and all these interactions offer opportunities to engage in self-soothing behaviour. Self-soothing means behaviours that we engage with in order to calm or relax ourselves, such as tapping our feet or clicking our knuckles. Being able to find soothing behaviours that involve caring for a pet can provide sensory input that feels manageable to dementia patients and can be very calming.

One of the difficulties of this illness is that it affects the way that people's brains engage with sensory input — many dementia sufferers might find bright lights and loud noises difficult to deal with. Having some relaxing, quiet sensory stimulations can therefore provide a more manageable way to interact with the world, and also offer a distraction from more disturbing sensory features.

Improving physical health

It can be extremely challenging to maintain physical health while suffering from dementia, especially as coordination difficulties and lack of confidence might keep people from venturing out to exercise and explore the way they may have done before. But if possible, physical exercise can really bring benefits for people with the condition (Alzheimers.Org).

Having a dog can therefore bring some support in engaging with physical activity again.

Dogs need to be walked, and even stroking them and caring for them requires small movements that can be excellent for joints and muscles, particularly for people who have arthritis, which is common in the elderly.

As well as the increased physical activity of looking after a dog, there are also opportunities to participate in dog-orientated events, such as dog walking groups or social clubs. These all contribute to therapy dogs being a real boost to physical as well as mental health.

"Having a dog can be a real boost to anyone’s wellbeing, and it is a wonderful thing to add to your life. But having a therapy dog can be particularly excellent for those suffering from dementia. They provide an outlet of social interaction and support, and can bring some renewed confidence to people's lives, allowing them to maintain their independence and social circles.

"It’s important to make sure that people with dementia have the correct support prior to having a therapy dog. So, if you think this is something that would benefit a loved one, ensure that they have met some friendly canines to check they really will enjoy this. They should also be supported when getting used to caring for their pet, and this includes making sure that they have all the relevant equipment, toys, and food that they will need.

"Different dogs have different needs, so check with the provider of the therapy animal about what their needs will be food-wise and in terms of exercise and stimulation. Exercise is a very important consideration, as you'll need to be sure that the dog's exercise needs match with the physical abilities of your loved one. With this in mind, choose a breed that will suit the person in question — smaller dogs are better for those with limited mobility, as they require less exercise. Pugs, Schnauzers, Chihuahuas, Cocker Spaniels and Boston Terriers tend to make great companions." - Emma Herring, Senior Brand Manager at Webbox


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