The Dementia Dog Project

By Dr Louise Ritchie

Dr Louise Ritchie is a Reader in Dementia Research in the Alzheimer Scotland Centre for Policy and Practice at UWS.

By Dr Louise Ritchie

 Most people within the dementia research community in Scotland will have heard of the Dementia Dog Project, they are welcomed at conferences and the dogs are often the centre of attention wherever they go. Network members who attended our BSG Animal-Assisted Dementia Care Workshop in May 2019 will remember meeting Henry, Anne and Uno, and hearing about the wonderful impact Uno has had on their lives. While meeting Uno (and other dementia dogs) is a lovely experience, it is witnessing the relationship between Henry, Anne and Uno that stays with you.

The Dementia Dog Project is an innovative project that aims to support people with dementia to engage with dogs and to promote the use of dogs in dementia care in the community in Scotland. The pilot project launched in 2013 and in the pilot phase introduced a dementia assistance dog to four couples where one person had a diagnosis of dementia. In 2016, I led an evaluation of the pilot phase of the Dementia Dog Project with Dr Nick Jenkins, Dr Sam Quinn and Professor Debbie Tolson from UWS along with Dr Barbara Sharp from Alzheimer Scotland. The Dementia Dog Project has developed a lot since then, and there are currently 10 dementia assistance dogs living with families across Scotland; you can read more about the project in the link above. This blog will focus on the findings of our research, published in 2019 which you can read here.

Our research focused on trying to understand what happens when a dementia dog is placed with a family to unlock such transformational benefits, like those described by Henry and Anne. Our analysis drew on data from a range of primary and secondary sources including interviews with the project team, case reports, team meeting notes and transcripts of interviews with participants (collected during the pilot period of the project 2013-2015). We identified three mechanisms that help to unlock the most positive outcomes for both the participants and the dogs. These were (1) the human-animal bond, (2) relationship dynamics and (3) responsibility of caring.

Both the person living with dementia and their spouse formed strong bonds with the dog, however there were notable differences in the nature of the bond. Reciprocity and trust were at the root of the bond, however the dog seemed to understand that their role was to support the person with dementia, and that the spouse was the person who would provide care for the dog. The foundation of trust meant that both the person living with dementia and their spouse had confidence in the dog carrying out the role that was required. The benefits of this were emotional and practical support for the person living with dementia, and respite from the role of ‘carer’ for their spouse. One participant spoke of their dog as ‘the missing link in our bracelet’.

Related to this was how the dog seemed to influence the existing relationship dynamics; the couples spoke about how having the dog acts as a ‘buffer’ between them and how the dog provided a focus and a topic of conversation that wasn’t dementia. Although the dog was there primarily in a support role, the social benefits of having a dementia dog seemed to be around bringing normality to interactions both between the couple and in other situations.

Finally, the research found that the responsibility of caring for the dog was important in developing positive outcomes for those involved. The Dementia Dog Project provides support and guidance to the families, however it is the responsibility of the family to care for the dog. This means providing exercise and nutrition as well as ensuring their training is maintained. Having this responsibility provided motivation to be more physically active, but also more socially connected which had potential benefits for each family’s well-being and quality of life.

The Dementia Dog Project is an excellent example of how animals can be successfully integrated into dementia care. While our research has only explored a small section of the work the Project engages in, it is clear to see the significant impact the dogs have on the lives of people living with dementia and their families. As a person who would have never described herself as an animal lover (I’m allergic to most furry creatures!) being involved in this project has completely changed my perspective and I’m so excited to develop the Multi-Species Dementia Network (I’ll probably need to stock up on anti-histamines though).