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By GEORGE ARBUTHNOTT
First there were guide dogs for the blind, then hearing dogs for the deaf. Now man’s best friend could help to care for people suffering from dementia.
Golden retrievers and labradors are being taught to remind people to take their tablets, raise the alarm in an emergency, assist with undressing and help out around the home.
Under the ‘Dementia Dog’ project the animals are trained to respond to an alarm that goes off whenever a person who is struggling with memory loss needs to take medication.
The dog then clenches its mouth around the medicine, stored in a bite-proof bag, and carries it to the sufferer.
Animals can also be taught to recognise a specific movement that their owner would make when in distress.
The dog would then either press an emergency button on a telephone or bark loudly to raise the alarm.
And dogs can learn to open cupboards, drawers, fridges and washing machines, flick light switches, and even help people suffering from dementia to undress.
Experts say the animals can be trained to carry out any task that requires a pulling motion. So if a short rope is attached to a cupboard door, the dog can open it.
When it comes to helping with undressing, the dogs are trained to pull at the sleeve of a coat or tug off socks.
So far the project has been given £52,000 of Government funding, but needs to raise a further £130,000 to launch a pilot scheme later this year.
Eventually, it is hoped the initiative will allow many more of the 750,000 Britons who suffer from dementia to retain their independence for longer.
The dogs will undergo a six-month training programme using ‘positive reinforcement’, which means that whenever they complete a task correctly, they get a treat.
If the scheme, developed by voluntary organisation Alzheimer Scotland, gains funding, it will be the first time that dogs have been used to assist those with dementia.
The organisation’s deputy director, Joyce Gray, said: ‘We are really hopeful the dogs will not only be a huge practical help but also provide great emotional support.
‘People with the condition can easily become isolated and the dog will be a constant companion, which will help them to keep social.’
Sufferers of early-stage dementia are now being urged to suggest other ways the dogs could improve their lives.
The feedback will be incorporated into the pilot scheme once the funding is raised.
Four students at Glasgow School of Art came up with the idea after Alzheimer Scotland challenged the college to suggest an innovative way to improve the lives of dementia sufferers.
The concept was pitched to the Design Council, which in partnership with the Department of Health was offering funding for projects that helped those with early-stage dementia.
The Dementia Dogs scheme has now gained the backing of charities Dogs For The Disabled and Guide Dogs, which already provide dogs with similar skills to help those with physical disabilities.
The number of people with dementia is set to hit one million by 2021 and 1.7 million by 2050. It is believed that six out of ten of those with the condition are undiagnosed.
Sufferers of dementia and their relatives are urged to suggest ways that dogs could help them via the website dementiadog.org.