by Myrna Shiboleth
The thought of Alzheimer’s disease is frightening. The idea of losing not only your health, but the part of yourself that makes you uniquely you is terrifying. People that are affected by this insidious disease suffer from damage to their ability for cognitive thinking – they begin to lose memory, judgment, orientation in time and orientation to their surroundings, and their ability to relate normally to the presence of people. These changes interfere with their ability to function normally in everyday life. The loss of orientation interferes with their ability to return home safely, so every time they step out the door alone, they can end up facing a true danger to life.
It is impossible to imagine the terrible isolation, frustration, anger and helplessness experienced by Alzheimer’s sufferers as the disease progresses. It starts slowly, so that the patient is aware of what is happening to him and what the future will bring. It is not uncommon for people as young as 50 to 60 to start feeling the first effects, and people that have been active, respected professionals find themselves involuntary prisoners, dependent on others for things as simple as to go outside. The despair and depression that attack them often result in the refusal of the patient to leave his home or even his bed, to refuse to come in contact with others, and can bring on serious deterioration of the patient’s physical health as well.
Yariv Ben Yosef, an Israeli dog trainer who specializes in training service dogs for a variety of disabilities, felt that there must be a way that trained dogs could help the sufferers of early onset Alzheimer’s to continue for as long as possible to live a more normal life and not to be a burden on their families and caretakers. Dogs have proven to be amazingly capable of assisting people with a variety of physical and mental challenges, so why could they not also be trained to help Alzheimer’s patients? After consulting with medical, psychiatric, social work, and technical experts, he developed the program for the Alzheimer’s Aid Dog, a service dog that has been developed specifically to cope with the problems of this condition.
The pioneer recipient, Yehuda, an Alzheimer’s patient of 62 at the time that the project was initiated, received the first dog to be trained for this purpose. Polly is a smooth collie. Her training was started from the age of three months. Her job is to bring Yehuda home when he becomes disoriented, and to do so safely by avoiding obstacles such as parked cars, holes in the pavement, traffic and anything else that might get in the way. She is also trained to give him physical support so that he can avoid falls and injuries – Alzheimer’s patients often have some physical difficulties, especially when they have lost their orientation to the surroundings.
But even more so, the task of the dog is to be a friend that is with the patient 24 hours a day. Patients in the early stages of the disease often feel fear, distress, terrible loneliness, and anxiety, and lose the ability to act with caution. Polly, through her loving and devoted presence, the physical contact that she seeks with Yehuda, and solicitation of play and care, is able to calm him and distract him from his fears and worries and improve his mood. She is with him at night, and also when other family members are busy with their own pursuits, so that he never feels alone. When Yehuda feels depressed and doesn’t want to get out of bed, Polly pesters him, pulls the blanket off of him, brings her toys, and doesn’t quit until he gets up to respond to her needs. Keeping active is essential to the well being of Alzheimer’s patients, and is one of the factors that is believed to slow the progress of the disease.
With Polly, Yehuda is able to go out to walk even when other family members are not available to go with him. Walking is excellent for the physical well being of the patient, and increases the contact of the patient with other people in the vicinity, who are interested and curious about the dog that is wearing the special harness. This verbal contact and interaction helps to bring the patient out of the cycle of loneliness, isolation, and boredom.
An Alzheimer’s Aid Dog is trained to alert to unusual physical conditions or problems, such as breathing difficulties, falls, and so on, and will call for help. This is done by barking and attracting the attention of people in the vicinity. The dog is also equipped with a special collar that has a transmitter that reacts to a special bark that the dog is trained to use to call for help. This bark activates the transmitter that transmits to the cell phones of family members. The dog is also trained, when at home, to operate a panic button if help is needed.
The primary task of an AADog is to bring his master home safely. The patient is conditioned to give the command “Home!” to the dog when he begins to feel disoriented or lost. The dog then takes control, leading the patient back to his familiar home surroundings, and barks at the door to attract the attention of the family members. However, there are times when the patient is not able to give the command, forgets the command, is not aware of the amount of time that has passed, or has completely left the area that is familiar to him – Alzheimer’s patients are capable of walking very long distances without being aware of where they are going. To deal with these situations, a special GPS homing device is attached to the dog’s harness. This can be used by family members to signal to the dog that it is now time to bring the patient home. Should the patient refuse to follow the dog, they can be located by the GPS device. The dog at all times stays with the patient, and if necessary, will also attract attention by barking.
The need to get up in the morning to exercise the dog and care for it helps to establish a daily routine for the patient and give meaning to his life, when other activities are diminishing as a result of the progress of the disease.
The task of an Alzheimer’s Aid Dog is extremely demanding, probably the most complex and stressful of any service task performed by dogs. The dog has to be able to take the initiative and to function without any commands from his master when necessary, in response to the situation, a major difference from other service dogs that respond primarily to the commands of their partner. An AAdog also has to be able to put up with the radical mood changes that are typical of the disease, and to remain loving, devoted, and able to continue working. Finding the right dog for this task was essential to the success of the project. After considering and trying various possibilities, the smooth collie proved to be the ideal dog. This breed, bred for generations to work closely with its master as a highly efficient herding dog, has the characteristics that are essential. They are highly trainable and very keen to work, without being overly active or spirited, and are not aggressive to people, other dogs, or animals. They have a strong play drive, which is very important in their training. They are extremely loyal and devoted, wanting nothing more than to be with their people 24 hours a day. But on the other hand, they are tough and resilient enough to tolerate mood changes on the part of the patient and to keep on working, and not to let the instabilities of the patient interfere with the bonding between dog and master. They are healthy and easy to care for, with a coat that requires little care.
Today there are four working Alzheimer’s Aid Dogs in the world, three in Israel and one in Germany. They have all been trained in Israel by Yariv Ben Yosef, and all are smooth collies. Although several other breeds have been tried, none of them have been successful to date. Several additional collies were started in the training program, but were unable to stand up to the high stress level, and were retrained for other service tasks. However, these four dogs have been successful beyond all expectations. Polly, when on vacation with Yehuda and his wife in Paris, was able to bring Yehuda home to his hotel room when he got lost going out to buy a newspaper. She has made it possible for him to carry on with normal activities, such as bringing his grandchildren home from kindergarten; his daughter was not prepared for him to do so before he got the dog, but now she knows that Polly will bring them all home safely. Another dog, Sunny, learned on her own initiative to give warning of impending epileptic attacks in her master, and not to let her out of the house at this time, so as not to run the risk of an attack in a place where there was no assistance. Sarah, another Alzheimer’s patient, has a tendency to “escape” from her house when her caretaker is busy and to disappear. Keshet has learned not only to find her, but to run to the caretaker, jump on her and bark, to tell her that Sarah is outside, and then to lead the caretaker to her. The AADogs have brought their partners home in a variety of conditions and circumstances that could have proven dangerous and even life threatening to the patient. These dogs have provided a renewed quality of life to their partners.
The first working Alzheimer’s Aid Dog, Polly, was imported as a puppy from Finland, from the well known Sandcastle Kennels there. The second, Sunny, was bred by Leslie Rappaport of the King’s Valley Kennels in Oregon, well known for a line of collies highly successful both as show dogs and service dogs. She was also imported as a puppy; it is very important to start the training of these dogs as young as possible. The two additional working Alzheimer’s Aid dogs were bred in Israel by Myrna Shiboleth of Netiv HaAyit collies, and both are daughters of Freckle, a bitch also imported from King’s Valley. Freckle, King’s Valley After All, as well as having produced two AAdogs, also has offspring that are working as epilepsy warning dogs and service dogs for autistic children, as well as offspring that are very successful in the show ring. Freckle herself is an Israel champion and well on the way to becoming an international champion, and has been a BISS winner – just proving that beauty and brains do go together.
The major goal now is to establish a larger breeding group of smooth collies from stock with proven working ability, to be able to produce more puppies that can assist more people. Two new smooths have recently arrived in Israel for this purpose from the US, a male from McMaur’s collies, also well known for working lines, and a female, herself with a herding title, from Linda Holloway of Ability Collies. Interested and qualified people in other countries will also be taught the techniques of training dogs for this task, and the hopes are that this project will expand. These dogs can change the lives of people in despair due to this horrible disease, and we hope to be able to help as many as possible to live an independent and functional life for as long as possible.
The author is responsible for the breeding program for the AADog project and the selection of suitable puppies. She is a long time breeder and trainer, FCI international judge, and writer and lecturer.