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New leash on life for Alzheimer's patients

An Israeli endeavor pairs Alzheimer's patients and dogs in order to help the elderly suffering from dementia lead a normal life.
Bella, a Smooth Collie trained to work with Alzheimer's patients, is stroked by her owner Reuben in Mevo Horon.Havakuk Levison / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Reuben, a 62-year-old Israeli suffering from the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, says his life has been transformed since he welcomed “Bella” into his home.

Bella, a 2-year-old smooth collie, is the first graduate of the Alzheimer’s Aid Dog project, a four-year collaboration in Israel between her trainer, Yariv Ben-Yossef, and social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh.

Reuben has had the dog for more than a year. When he gets lost, he commands her with the word “habaita,” Hebrew for home.

“I always go out with her. She has brought me home many times and has given me a tremendous feeling of confidence,” Reuben said.

The medium-sized black, tan and white dog is much more than a guide. She is a companion who gets Reuben out of bed on days when he does not want to get up by licking him or pulling off the covers.

“We’re not just talking about a guide dog or a dog who can push an emergency button. The dog needs to be in focus 24 hours,” Ben-Yossef said.

Reuben, who did not want his full name disclosed, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago. He participated in an Alzheimer’s support group and since it was known that he liked animals, he was asked to take part in the canine pilot.

Though there are projects around the world that have trained dogs to assist caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients, Ben-Yossef said the Israeli endeavor is the only one that also pairs patients and animals.

“If I am not in a good mood she does something funny and I laugh,” said Reuben, showing off Bella’s soccer-playing skills on the front lawn.

Seclusion and isolation
Golan-Shemesh said 10 percent of the elderly suffer from dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is one form. She said a major problem with sufferers is their feeling of seclusion and isolation.

Bella helps boost Reuben’s self-image, she said, noting that he can once again pick up his grandchildren from school.

“The dog is an anchor to real life again,” Golan-Shemesh said. “The patient can’t work or drive or do what he did before. Now he feels competent again.”

Bella is also a tool for interaction, drawing Reuben into conversations even with strangers on the street.

“One of the problems with the illness is we become very withdrawn. She and I go out and we have a lot of interaction with other people who always ask about her,” he said.

Bella helps family members as well, reducing their stress and bringing them together through their cooperation in training her.

“Bella has completely become part of the family,” Reuben said.

The dog is equipped with a global positioning device so that if Reuben is gone for a long time or he forgets the home command, the family can pinpoint their location. They can also dial a special phone number that sends out to Bella a high-pitched tone, signaling the dog to bring Reuben home.

Early stage Alzheimer’s patients “can lead a normal life with the dog. Without the dog they would be in life-threatening situations,” Golan-Shemesh said, noting statistics show patients not found within 12 hours of getting lost will probably turn up dead.

Family help
Family participation is vital in this project as Reuben is responsible for Bella’s care, including walking and feeding her.

Alzheimer’s patients have difficulty remembering to complete routine tasks and Reuben’s wife and son must step in if he forgets to give Bella food and water.

The cost of training Bella and fitting her with a special harness and the global positioning system is about $16,000, compared with $12,000 for a regular guide dog.

So far, Ben-Yossef’s Disabled Service Dog center has funded the cost of the project, but his goal of having 25 dogs working with Alzheimer’s victims by next year will depend on finding more financing.

Ben-Yossef works exclusively with collies for the project. A second dog will graduate soon.

“They are stable, highly developed in terms of behavior, work well under pressure, are confident and like to take responsibility, so they are good leaders,” he said.

The center has also trained dogs to assist later stage patients, some of whom are in nursing homes. The dogs bark to alert caregivers if a patient leaves the premises and can press an SOS box if there is a gas leak and even turn off the gas.

Golan-Shemesh said not enough has been done with early stage Alzheimer patients and believes dogs can play a big role in delaying the slide into the later stages of the disease.

Reuben said Bella has helped tremendously in preventing a deterioration in his condition.

“With Bella, every day is better,” he said.